by Jane Kramer
The New Yorker, April 26, 2010
Remember the Church of England, that mythically placid community of Sunday Christians and beaming vicars whom you met in Austen and possibly came to loathe in Trollope? ‘The Tory Party at prayer,’ generations of Fleet Street leader writers called it. You can forget that now.
The vicar you meet today is likely to be a young woman with a couple of Oxbridge degrees, and the country’s favorite cleric is Geraldine Granger, a plump chocoholic sitcom priest known to people who watch the BBC as the Vicar of Dibley. Geraldine, played by the actress Dawn French, made her début in 1994, the year that women were first ordained as priests of the Church of England. She stayed near the top of the sitcom ratings for the better part of thirteen years, which is three years longer than Tony Blair ran Britain, and continues to shepherd her parishioners through DVDs and reruns - during which time more than twenty-five hundred women have been ordained. By now, women account for nearly a third of the Church of England’s working priests, and most of them are waiting for the investiture of the Church of England’s first female bishop - a process begun in 2008, when the laity, clergy, and bishops in the Church’s governing body, the General Synod, voted in favor of removing the last vestiges of gender discrimination from canon law.
Not everyone is pleased. Patriarchy survives in the flock that Henry VIII appropriated from Rome in 1534, having shed a menopausal wife without benefit of the papal nod known to Catholics with connections as annulment, in order to marry Anne Boleyn, who had promised him a son a year - and was herself dispatched to the executioner’s block for producing a girl instead. And never mind that the women at issue now are priests and their problems are more professional than reproductive. It took seventeen years of wrenching Synod debate for women to be ordained, and when they were, some five hundred male priests fled in protest - two-thirds of them, as the saying goes, ‘to Rome.’ The prospect of women’s elevation to the House of Bishops has been even more divisive. This isn’t a question of High Church and Low Church differences. England’s church has always been (the common word) ‘inclusive.’ It grew as an uneasy accommodation between the traditionalists of the Apostolic Creed and Catholic ritual and devotions now known as Anglo-Catholics and the brimstone-and-Bible Protestants born in the chapels of the Reformation, making common cause against the Church of Rome. Today, it covers a sliding scale of beliefs and practices, with the majority of England’s Anglican parishes somewhere in the middle. But the argument about women bishops cuts across all the old divisions. Thousands of conservative Anglicans - priests and laymen - on both sides of the High Church – Low Church divide still refuse to take Communion from a female priest, and would certainly refuse to take it from any priest ordained by a female bishop. For the past two years, they have been threatening to leave the Church at the first sign of a woman in a bishop’s mitre. The next session of the General Synod, in July, is going to consider, and is expected to approve, the draft for a change in canon law that would open the episcopate to women. If a large number of militant conservatives do leave then, the Church of England - and, with it, the churches of a worldwide Anglican Communion planted by the settlers, traders, and missionaries of the British Empire - will fracture in ways that will make the defection of a few hundred priests in the nineteen-nineties seem insignificant.
Helen-Ann Hartley is a thirty-six-year-old priest attached to a parish church in Littlemore, near Oxford, where she preaches; to the mainstream Anglican seminary Ripon College Cuddesdon, where she teaches; to the St. John’s College Chapel Choir, where her husband plays the organ; and to BBC Oxford, where she often broadcasts. At twenty-six - a Scottish-born clergyman’s daughter, studying at Oxford for a doctorate in New Testament - she found a vocation in the Church of England. At thirty-one, ‘too young to have experienced the exclusion,’ she was ordained.
The Bishop of Oxford then was a liberal Anglo-Catholic named Richard Harries, who, she says, ‘was rooting for me as a woman.’ He gave her a parish posting, and a year later his successor, John Pritchard, made her his inaugural chaplain at Christ Church Cathedral, where Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had once been a residentiary canon. Her first brush with discrimination took place at the cathedral, during the inauguration, when she was carrying Pritchard’s crosier and passed a man in bishop’s robes who said that the staff ‘suits you.’ It turned out to be the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Andrew Burnham, who says it’s the sort of joke he makes to everyone, ‘male or female,’ holding the crosier. Burnham is better known as one of the ‘flying bishops’ - suffragan bishops who, by an act of synod when women were admitted to the priesthood, travel their provinces as ‘episcopal visitors’ to churches that will not accept the service of a female priest. (Ebbsfleet is an honorific, not a diocese. It refers to a village in Kent where St. Augustine of Canterbury is said to have preached, in 597, on a papal mission to convert the Kentish king and establish the authority of Rome in England.)
Hartley was neither surprised nor prepared. ‘I have had to learn to negotiate my voice of authority’ is how she describes her trip down the nave. ‘Everyone thinks I’m ‘nice,’ and I guess I am, but I don’t really need that label.’ She has also learned to negotiate her presence. When she visits her Catholic counterparts in Littlemore - two priests who became Roman Catholics after the ordination of women, and with whom she is friendly - she wears a skirt and blouse or a pair of jeans, but in meetings with conservative Anglicans who are known to be dismissive or condescending to clergywomen she wears her dog collar ‘to show I’m a priest.’
That happens less and less. The three priests at her Littlemore church, famous as the last church built for the conservative priest and theologian John Henry Newman before he converted to Rome, in 1845, and eventually became Cardinal Newman, are women. ‘I quite like the fact that women run Newman’s church,’ she told me. (Newman, whose Oxford Movement was fighting for ‘catholicity’ at a time when evangelicals had all but taken over the Church of England, would be appalled.) ‘Sometimes I say, ‘Ladies, maybe we should invite a male to do the Eucharist for a change.’ ‘ Half the students at Cuddesdon are women, and more than a third of the faculty. ‘Being equal men and women - that gives you a chance to get on with the real debate,’ she said. ‘There are four women training at Wycliffe’ - a conservative evangelical seminary in Oxford - ’and when they read, from I Timothy, ‘Women should not be priests,’ what are those women thinking?’ There are only two women at St. Stephen’s House, the city’s conservative Anglo-Catholic seminary. Its principal, Robin Ward, is a canon of chilling intelligence who is said to be planning to convert to Rome if female bishops are ordained. Hartley describes it as ‘a place I wear my dog collar.’
‘There’s no argument against women bishops that holds,’ she says. ‘People come to me, from the parish, and say, ‘We didn’t used to be for women, but we like you, you’re ‘normal.’ So I would hope that, by being me, I am helping them see that it’s not about gender. Most of them just want to get on with the work of the Gospel. What they want is sympathy from a human being. Not a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ but a priest to minister to them. Two years ago, we had a three-day conference, ‘Transfiguring Episcopy.’ All the women bishops in the world came, thirteen or fourteen of them - there are probably more now - and to see a woman wearing a mitre! It just blew us away. It made me see ‘bishop’ in a new way.’
Hartley and her colleagues look to those bishops for support - in part because the support they had hoped for at home, from Canterbury, has been sincere but timid. They do not know why Anglicanism’s mother church should remain, for its own members, a father church, when the Episcopalians, in America, not only have eleven female bishops - one of whom, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is now their presiding bishop - but have weathered the departure of four right-wing dioceses that broke away after Jefferts Schori’s elevation, in 2006, and, in particular, after the elevation of Gene Robinson, New Hampshire’s gay bishop, three years earlier. Those dioceses, together with a large number of scattered parishes, have reinvented themselves as a new Anglican ‘province,’ more virtual than geographic; they have placed themselves under the authority of a deposed Pittsburgh bishop and are ‘in full communion’ with the Anglican churches of Nigeria and Uganda. (The belated comment of Uganda’s church on a government bill that had included executing homosexuals was that homosexuality was not ‘a human right.’) The women do not understand what their own Archbishop is afraid of losing if he loses people like that at home. Last winter, Hartley put it this way: ‘So, yes, I think that one or two times Rowan Williams could have spoken up, could have said, ‘We must get on with it here, in England!’ I’m preaching at the cathedral on Advent Sunday, giving the University Sermon. I love Advent. It’s about finding light in the darkness, about the urgency of the Gospel. Sometimes Rowan forgets the urgency.’
Hartley follows the progress of a group called Women and the Church (WATCH). It was co-founded in 1996 and, until this year, chaired by a liberal evangelical activist and writer named Christina Rees, and a WATCH task force often meets in the Cloisters house of Jane Hedges, one of the four residentiary canons of Westminster Abbey - a ‘catholic Anglican,’ as liberal Anglo-Catholics sometimes describe themselves, who is likely to become the Church of England’s first female bishop. WATCH has been waging a war of influence on the fronts of law, doctrine, theology, the Bible, history, and common sense which could really be called a civil war, since Henry’s Church of England remains the established church of state. It ‘belongs’ to the throne now occupied by the namesake of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, who grew up to become Elizabeth I, the most adroit monarch in English history, and the longest reigning until Victoria came to the throne, three hundred years later.
The legal argument runs this way: given the Church’s special status, priests are functionaries of the state, and, because of this, its claim to a ‘religious exemption’ in regard to women in the episcopate violates both Britain’s and Europe’s anti-discrimination laws. The Scriptural argument, in brief, is this: there is nothing in the Gospels that precludes women from priestly service; Christ called men and women ‘equal in my hands,’ and when conservatives in the Church counter that if Christ had wanted women bishops he would not have made all his apostles men, the women ask them why, then, did Christ choose two women to witness and announce the Resurrection.
But the most obvious argument is that England has done quite well by women with power, whether real or symbolic. Elizabeth II, who will be eighty-four this month, has reigned for fifty-eight years and managed to preserve the creaky institution of the British monarchy, despite the indulgences of a family at least as heedless and exasperating as Geraldine’s sitcom parish. During those years, Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who broke the back of British unionism, rationalized the country’s economy, and - despite the attrition involved - was reëlected twice. Mrs. Thatcher took office fifteen years before women were ordained in the Church of England. Those women are demanding their own turn now. Rowan Williams, a theologian of huge distinction and, perhaps because of this, almost paralytic reticence, has been trying to broker a peace between his warring priests while Pope Benedict XVI, in Rome, a theologian of less distinction but far steelier entitlement, has seized the chance to publicly invite Anglican clergymen, single and married, and their parishes into the sheltering misogyny of the magisterium.
I spoke with Rowan Williams late last fall, three weeks after the Pope extended his invitation, and only two days after an elaborate canonical text, prepared in the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and devoted in large part to rules and regulations for the conversion and status of Anglican priests and bishops, was published on the Vatican Web site. Neither Williams nor his Roman Catholic counterpart, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, had been consulted-or, for that matter, told what the Pope was planning until they received a draft of the text, ten days before it was announced. Williams was leaving for Rome the following week on what was supposed to have been a routine visit - he was speaking at a Jesuit symposium honoring the late Dutch ecumenist Johannes Willebrands and had planned to stop at the Vatican for a nice visit with the Pope - but now that visit would have to address the decidedly un-ecumenical problem of what the British had quickly labelled ‘papal poaching.’ Under the circumstances, the Archbishop - dressed in black slacks and shirt and a simple priest’s collar and settled into an armchair in his study at Lambeth Palace, in London - was serene. He said that he wasn’t ‘losing sleep’ over the Pope’s offer. ‘I didn’t see it as an act of aggression,’ he told me, ‘but I think it could have been handled in a better way.’ It was the closest he came to describing the conversation that he and the Pope might have.
Williams is a fifty-nine-year-old Welshman with a beautiful voice, a full white beard, and fearsome, flyaway black eyebrows that in pictures, or when he is thinking hard, can make him look like a monk out of Dostoyevsky - a resemblance that is said to please him. He wrote a book about Dostoyevsky in 2008. His manner is friendly, more professorial than priestly. He taught theology for most of the nineteen - eighties, at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where, at thirty-six, he became the youngest person ever to hold the university’s oldest academic chair. His students - some of them now the priests berating him most strongly for his reluctance to put himself, and his office, on the line for a cause he is known to support - call him the most engrossing teacher they ever had. After a few minutes, I believed it. Williams has a disarming mind, a modesty, and an appetite for conversation, a way of thinking out loud, that belies the austerity of his title. At one point, he stopped himself, saying, ‘Sorry, this is turning into a sermon.’
‘How do you eat an elephant?’ he said, with something between a chuckle and a sigh, when I asked how he hoped to hold his church together, given that the demands of Anglican women were so completely at odds with the demands of Anglican men whose own inclusion specifically involved excluding those women from episcopal service. ‘I suppose it’s by using as best I can the existing consultative mechanisms to create a climate-and I think that’s often the best, to create a climate,’ he told me. ‘There’s a phrase which has struck me very much: that you can actually ruin a good cause by pushing it at the wrong moment and not allowing the process of discernment and consent to go on, and that’s part of my view.’ He thought that with time, patience, and enough discussion within the Church you could temper the opposition to female bishops - despite the fact that three synods since 1994 have tried to address the issue, and the opposition remains intractable. His friends call this ‘Rowan’s Obama syndrome’: the persistence of a commendable but not very realistic belief in the power of reason to turn your enemies into allies.
He was not overly troubled by the prospect of Anglicans invoking antidiscrimination laws to open the door to women bishops. He didn’t think it was going to happen or, at least, get anyone very far. Nor did he claim to be troubled by threats of a mass exodus of the country’s conservative Anglo-Catholics, the point of Anglo-Catholicism being that you reject the dogma of papal primacy and its nineteenth-century embellishment, infallibility, and still remain as much a part of the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church’ as a Roman Catholic. He talked about a ‘very strong anti-hierarchical streak - the Christian socialist involvement, if you like, with Anglo-Catholic history’ - that would deter them. He expected that some Anglicans would leave. ‘I think those who would take advantage of this are those who, I suppose, when they’ve taken a deep breath, will say, ‘All right, we can accept a sort of centralized papal model as it stands.’ But there are many who would say, ‘If I believed that it was necessary for salvation, for Catholic integrity, to be in communication with the Bishop of Rome, then I would do it - but I don’t.’ ‘ He counted on that. ‘I’m eager to see women ordained,’ he said, ‘and at the same time very reluctant to see a decision made that will cost us some very, very valuable people. . . . There is something in that Catholic tradition, which is where I come from, which would be much poorer if we lost.’
An Archbishop of Canterbury is not a Pope. His authority is limited; by canon law, it extends no farther than his Canterbury diocese. Rowan Williams’s moral and spiritual influence, as Primate of All England, is considerable, but he does not ‘rule’ the Church of England - or, for that matter, the churches of the Anglican Communion, whose eighty million members in more than a hundred and sixty countries make up the third-largest Christian denomination in the world. Anglicanism’s offspring churches are, for the most part, national, and constitutionally independent. The so-called ‘Western’ provinces - the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - began ordaining women as early as 1974, twenty years before England had a female priest. In Africa, where half the world’s Anglicans now live, the strongest ongoing tradition of female priests is in South Africa - in large part owing to the powerful liberalizing influence of Desmond Tutu, the country’s former Archbishop. Nigeria and Uganda, which together account for twenty-five million of Africa’s Anglicans, have been hostage to two radically patriarchal archbishops and have been openly schismatic since the ordination of women began.
There is no formal covenant holding those churches together. Their one connection has been their common bond with the mother church in England, and Williams is determined to preserve what remains of that bond. It may be a lost cause. Schism is hardly new to Christianity, and many Anglicans believe that a case can be made for a smaller, more cohesively just church. But insofar as it is Williams’s cause - or, as he sees it, his responsibility to a legacy of ‘Christian imagination’ under attack from all sides - he has been urging patience to a few thousand angry female priests at home. He told me that the ‘most fundamental reason’ for his own patience, during eight years as England’s Primate, remains a reluctance to rule - ’to invent powers I don’t have’ is how he put it. ‘I don’t believe that is the role of a bishop or an archbishop,’ he said. ‘ ‘Agonizing’ is a strong word and a melodramatic word. But it’s real for a lot of people, and the agonizing question is how long you can go without compromising the dignity of women in the Church.’ A few weeks later, after a lesbian priest was elected to serve as a suffragan bishop in Los Angeles, Williams begged the Americans to reconsider. In March, her election was confirmed.
Conservative Anglican evangelicals take their marching orders from Paul of Tarsus: ‘The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.’ Conservative Anglo-Catholics also appear to take theirs from I Corinthians: ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak.’ The flying bishop of Ebbsfleet, Andrew Burnham, told me, ‘Certain things are unalterable. You can develop women’s ministry in a normal way, but you can’t change ministry or the episcopate any more than you can bread and wine. What remains is Jesus’ choice of twelve men. The Catholic priesthood is successor to the Jewish priesthood. A gracious patriarchy. The only apostolic themes in the New Testament are men. I have followed the teaching of the Church.’
Burnham is bluff, plainspoken, and aggrieved. ‘The day I became a flying bishop I became an outsider, redundant,’ he says. He is also deeply involved in a group of radically conservative Anglo-Catholics known, somewhat perversely, as Forward in Faith, some of whom first approached the Vatican about terms of conversion in the early nineties, when the ordination of women priests was close to settled. But Burnham did not convert, perhaps because most conservative Anglicans were willing to live, however grudgingly, with women priests, as long as those women were not their priests - or simply because, in the end, priests like him were not ready to accommodate to a Pope’s discipline and dictates. Those priests may be more accommodating now. Priests are ordained by bishops, and given that Burnham and his colleagues do not recognize what they call the ‘apostolic legitimacy’ of women to ordain, they envisage an England filled with ersatz priests. The flying bishops remain a stopgap solution - part of what Anglicans like to call a ‘basket of practices’ that do not affect canon law. They would probably not survive the ordination of female bishops; the legitimacy that women seek involves a bishop’s traditional right to decide what happens in his or her diocese, from ordinations to ‘invitations’ to outside priests or bishops to administer the sacraments.
Geoffrey Kirk, an unabashedly misogynist London vicar who is the national secretary of Forward in Faith, told me that, for him, the tipping point was the Episcopalian bishops’ election of Jefferts Schori as their presiding bishop. He called it ‘a fundamental scandal’ and added, ‘I think Mrs. Jefferts Schori is a layperson. It’s not my doing. They decided.’ He said that a shoplifter was ‘more qualified, per se,’ to be a bishop than a woman was, so long as the shoplifter didn’t say that shoplifting was good, or that he was a Marxist spreading the wealth around. ‘We claim to be part of the universal Catholic Church, and if you make that claim you cannot change what you inherit,’ he told me. ‘If you change the nature of orders in one part of the Church, you deny the universality of orders.’ Kirk will undoubtedly convert, and will work with his parishioners to convert with him. He discussed the subject of pastoral conversions with the Vatican two years ago, in conversations with the conservative Austrian cardinal Christoph Schoenborn. He was encouraged, he says, but not ready to concede the fight at home.
With this in mind, Kirk and the other Forward in Faith priests hedged their bets with the Vatican by making a marriage of convenience, or, in his words, ‘co-belligerency,’ with their most conservative evangelical counterparts in the Church of England, including the charismatics - the British say ‘happy-clappies’ - who prophesy and speak in tongues and otherwise bewilder their more traditional brethren. The understanding was that the evangelicals, as Biblical fundamentalists who consider homosexuality an abomination, would lead the fight against gay bishops, while the conservative Anglo-Catholics, as the fundamentalists of tradition, would do the same with women. They thought that together they could control the Synod. They were wrong.
In 2007, the conservative evangelicals attached themselves to a group called GAFCON, for Global Anglican Future Conference, which a year later emerged from the shadows of the Internet to hold an alternative bishops conference in Jerusalem. The meeting was hosted by, among others, the schismatic Nigerian archbishop, Peter Akinola, who retired this month, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen - a man described by one liberal Australian Anglican as ‘taking over our church by stealth, ordaining anything evangelical that moves.’ Nearly three hundred dissident bishops from twenty-seven Church provinces came. They met for seven days, and produced a statement, accusing the Anglican Communion of ‘false gospel’ - and concluded that recognition by Canterbury was ‘not necessary for Anglican identity.’ A month later, when Rowan Williams presided over the Communion’s official Bishops Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of the tribe, only a hundred of the ‘Jerusalem bishops’ showed up at Canterbury - which is to say a fifth of the world’s Anglican bishops stayed away. Williams led a prayer for them all.
As many as a thousand conservative Anglo-Catholic priests are now said to be weighing Benedict’s offer, which the Vatican called an ‘apostolic constitution.’ No one, of course, can predict how many of them will accept it, but the magnitude of the pedophilia scandals that have shaken the Roman Catholic world since the invitation was issued will almost certainly deter some of their parishioners. In November, Williams had mentioned to me a number of Anglicans he knew who thought that ‘in the long run, it would be nice to have some sort of primacy, but not the way things are - and that’s not about the present Pope.’ Today, with Benedict in eerie denial of his role in covering up those scandals, the Pope has become a very large part of ‘the way things are.’ Two weeks ago, Williams spoke publicly for the first time about a ‘colossal trauma’ for Roman Catholics, in particular about the distress of Irish priests whose church was ‘suddenly losing all credibility.’ It was a pointed but sympathetic comment and not, as much of the press saw it, a long-simmering response to the Pope’s attempted incursions onto the Archbishop’s turf. But it was a reminder of what defecting Anglicans would be getting into. When we spoke last week, Williams told me, ‘Whenever any church has a problem in its past or its present, the Gospel thing to do is to say, ‘We’ve got to do something about it.’ ‘
The Vatican’s apostolic constitution involves conversion to the Church of Rome within the framework of ‘personal ordinariates,’ or jurisdictions, in which certain High Anglican rites, texts, and practices would be retained. Bishops would lose their diocesan titles and authority, and priests, both celibate and married, would function under the authority of a celibate Anglican convert - an ‘ordinary’ - in consultation with a Roman Catholic bishop. John Broadhurst, the Suffragan Bishop of Fulham and the chairman of Forward in Faith, welcomed the invitation. He told me, ‘I didn’t sign up with the Church of England for forty years of argument; I signed up for forty years of hard work proclaiming Christ. And now the Pope has said, You may have a home that’s secure for you, in communion with Rome and leading your Anglican life.’ Broadhurst, whose blustery style has made him a fixture on the country’s television talk-show circuit-on ‘Hard Talk,’ he pronounced it against ‘women’s nature’ to be priests - also doubles as London’s flying bishop. Like Kirk, he considered conversion in the early nineties and decided against it ‘because of the constraints.’ Today, he told me, ‘not even the flying bishops will have a place to live in the ‘new’ Church of England. The only choice is to knuckle under. And in the end I’d rather knuckle under to the Vatican.’
Any formal revision of church law is along process. The General Synod - elected for a five-year term and convening for four or five days every February and July - passes a motion. A committee is eventually named to revise a draft document for the new law. That document goes back to the General Synod (which may or may not have changed) for amendments, and then to forty-four diocesan synods for approval, and back to the Synod again. Next comes Parliament, where an ecclesiastical committee ‘scrutinizes’ it and Commons and Lords debate it - after which it goes to the Queen for ‘royal assent.’ With luck, it then becomes statute law and thus changes the canon law of the Church of England. In the case of female bishops, virtually all liberals in the Church want a simple law that confirms the unqualified diocesan authority of all bishops, regardless of sex. Most conservative Anglo-Catholics now say that they would settle for two laws, one exempting them from the other and, in a way, formalizing the authority of the flying bishops. Today, two years after the General Synod passed its motion for a single statute, the revision committee is still working on a draft.
Revision-committee hearings are closed. No one outside the room knows what anyone else has said, although they know who’s speaking and what those people probably did say. The committee’s members (who include a flying bishop) are sworn to secrecy. In the past, they would release a statement after a round of deliberations, detailing their progress. But the debate has become so fraught, and the arguments so intense, that after meeting in December the committee stopped saying anything at all. Christina Rees, at WATCH, e-mailed me, ‘Can you believe it? Words fail me!’
Christine Hardman, who is the archdeacon of a predominantly Christian swath of southeast London, sits on the revision committee, and when we met she was getting ready for another round of deliberations. Archdeacons are among the most senior clerics in the English church, and an archdeaconry is often the largest administrative division of a diocese. Hardman says that people refer to her diocese as ‘the canary in the miner’s lamp,’ because it’s ‘cosmopolitan, urban, fast-moving, always shifting, and has a huge spectrum of wealth, from corporate financiers to asylum seekers-a good context for ministry.’ Her archdeaconry alone covers fifty-six parishes, five of which have opted for ‘extended care’ (a polite euphemism for flying bishops) in the person of John Broadhurst. ‘I was of course willing to have them offered that possibility,’ Hardman told me. ‘In my legal role, I interact with them all. But I couldn’t preside at Communion in those parishes, and my bishop was rarely invited to, because of his stand for women. I can understand that they think women cannot be priests or bishops. I tell them, ‘I understand but I would not agree.’ What I don’t understand is why they think maleness is enough, and why the only ones they grant as having theological beliefs are men. This isn’t about what women want. It’s about religion and about what we believe God wants, about how we ‘discern’ someone to whom leadership is given and about our vow to our bishops and ‘the grace of orders’ - about what it means to be the Body of Christ. I care about maintaining the integrity of the Church of England. I’m less concerned with women bishops than with getting it right, and I haven’t heard a persuasive theological argument against them.’
Jonathan Baker, a priest who sits on the revision committee with Hardman, is the principal of Pusey House, an enclave of conservative Anglo-Catholic clergy in Oxford, named for the Oxford Movement theologian Edward Pusey. Baker describes himself as devoted ‘to restoring the Church of England’s Catholic life and witness.’ A few years ago, he resigned from another committee, named to draft a code of practice regarding ‘pastoral and sacramental care’ for people who could not accept the ordination of women bishops. He wrote that a code, as such, would not ‘address the fundamental ecclesiological and sacramental concerns’ of those people, and, what’s more, would end all institutional discussion of the ‘disputed question’ of the ordination of women to any level of the priesthood. ‘The question now,’ he told me, ‘is whether our quest for unity with Rome can ever be filled institutionally - and is the ordinariate of Benedict XVI’s proposal the answer?’ He thought it might be: ‘The reason for an all-male episcopate is that it’s the tradition of the Church. The tradition is the tradition. Let’s reflect on it. Not ‘Let’s find the theological justification.’ The priest is the sacramental representative of Christ as the High Priest, and . . .’ He didn’t finish the sentence: ‘and Christ was male.’
Most liberal Anglicans assumed that the revision committee would reflect the Synod’s vote in favor of female bishops. Instead, the committee was pretty much evenly divided between the ‘pros’ and ‘antis,’ which left them worried that their present Synod, meeting in July for the last session of its term, would come and go without a draft document to consider - after which a new Synod, more concerned with containing schism than with ordaining female bishops, would be elected. The committee is now expected to publish its draft next month, for the Church to consider. Williams told me last week, ‘I don’t think it’s been a particularly smooth run-up to Synod. The group has had a very difficult and very bumpy time.’ He didn’t think that the draft, to date, was going to satisfy the conservatives. He feared that, without consensus, the Synod could explode. When I asked if he was going to address the issue, he told me, ‘Obviously, the Archbishop of York and I will want to speak to the debate in Synod, but if we speak before that we want to make sure that we have something coherent to say.’
Forward in Faith is still fighting to keep a draft from even reaching the Synod - perhaps because Rome looks less appetizing now than it did last fall, but more likely because England’s Roman Catholic bishops have made no secret of their reluctance to take those Anglicans in, and their own Archbishop, Vincent Nichols, has issued a terse reminder that there is more commitment involved in joining the Church of Rome than a distaste for women in the episcopate. ‘Don’t underestimate how hateful some of those men are,’ Pauline Perry, a seventy-eight-year-old life peer who was Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for education during the Thatcher years and who now sits on Parliament’s ecclesiastical committee, told me. Perry is a Tory, a feminist, a patron of WATCH, and a fierce advocate for female bishops. ‘I’ve been on the committee for a long time,’ she said. ‘And I thought I’d heard everything until one of the Forward in Faith people on it stood up one day and said, ‘Can you imagine my pain if I have to kneel at the altar with a woman’s body under those robes!’ Those people have treated the women in their church terribly. They have told the women, ‘You are not received.’ ‘
There are twenty-three million Anglicans in England. They get baptized in the church, married at the church, and buried by the church, and most of them show up for Christmas and Easter services, when the music is undeniably celestial. On an average Sunday, all but a million or two stay home in their bathrobes and read the paper. They are, however, riveted by the fight over female bishops. Judith Maltby, a Reformation historian and Anglo-Catholic priest who serves as the chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, says, ‘To understand this, you have to understand ‘establishment’ as not just about Lord Bishops or the Queen - you have to understand it parochially. An Episcopal priest will say, ‘I have three hundred parishioners,’ meaning the people in his church.’ A Church of England priest will say, ‘I have twenty or thirty thousand,’ because legally his or her pastoral time is for everyone in the parish, no matter who they are’ - or where or how they worship, or even what religion, if any, they practice.
Maltby sent me to see a priest named Jane Freeman, whose parish - thirty-five thousand people, many of them immigrants and quite poor, in the outlying London borough of Newham - is said to be one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Europe. It has two Anglican churches, and Freeman figures that, between them, they account for no more than a hundred and fifty people on a good Sunday. ‘We are, as Christians, one group among many, and, as Anglicans, one group among many Christian groups,’ she says. ‘The African and West Indian Pentecostal ministries here are much larger. We have to earn our place at the table.’ Freeman chairs the board of governors of a huge state primary school across the street from her church and the rectory where we spent the morning talking. The church complex includes twenty-three flats for indigent elderly people, a medical clinic, a playgroup and nursery, and a center for adults with learning disabilities. And though, as she gently put it, ‘our local Muslim leaders are not very engaged in the interfaith process,’ her playgroup leader is a devout Muslim woman, and two Christmases ago a Muslim girl was Mary in the church’s Nativity play.
It is difficult to imagine England without the church whose future is being debated now. The Forward in Faith priests I met were grim in their predictions. Robin Ward, at St. Stephen’s House, said, ‘There will be women bishops, not accommodations. The next generation will be maybe more doctrinal, more ‘Protestant,’ and twenty-five years down the line they will still be confronting a huge row about homosexuality, with a split between the evangelicals and the rest. The question for us is . . . will the Anglo-Catholic tradition still be in the Church of England?’ John Broadhurst was already mourning the loss of strong father-figure priests, swept away by the petticoats of an ‘overly feminine’ clergy that was ‘not equipped for service in the kind of neighborhoods where people get stabbed in the middle of the night and a priest has to get up and drive to the hospital to administer last rites.’ In a war between the petticoats and the happy-clappies, he thought the evangelicals would win.
Conservative evangelicals - which is to say fundamentalist and, as often as not, charismatic - are one of the only expanding groups in England’s otherwise dwindling church. Vaughan Roberts, the rector of an evangelical church in Oxford called St. Ebbes, told me that his own congregation had spilled over into three other locations, outside the parish structure, in five years and now amounted to nine Sunday congregations, with a total of eleven hundred people. He dutifully signs the checks for St. Ebbes’s share of the diocese’s assessments and pension contributions to the Church of England, but says that taxing a church like his to support a priest with, say, thirty churchgoing parishioners is ‘socialism: you fund inefficiency and you tax growth.’ He has a payroll of thirty people, who run nightly programs involving everything from Bible studies to evangelical training, and who shepherd homosexuals through ‘repentance.’ (‘For us, women are not a primary issue, like homosexuals,’ he says. ‘But they are a Biblical issue. Men lead.’) He and his team of priests have forsworn most Anglican vestments and the regular recitation of the Creed. Once a week, they hold a ‘general confession’ and once a month a Communion service, which they refer to not as the Eucharist but as ‘the Lord’s Supper.’
Roberts was born again in 1983, when he read St. Matthew and, as he describes the experience, ‘Jesus walked off the pages into my life.’ He went on to Cambridge, where he was president of the Christian Union. Today, he writes simple, slim books about ‘the good news’ and ‘God’s big picture’ and enrolls adults in a six-step program for receiving Christ. He has been ‘encouraged’ in his mission, he says, by the example of London’s Holy Trinity Brompton, the closest thing to a megachurch in the Church of England. Holy Trinity Brompton was once a tranquil and quite traditional church. Today, as often as not, it is in full charismatic swing. It serves four thousand people, many of them twenty-somethings, at staggered Sunday services, and is said to be the wealthiest parish church in England - even without taking into account the worldwide distribution of its ‘Alpha Program,’ which, like Vaughan’s program, leads you up a smooth path to Jesus, truth, and a cheerful Christian life.
No one expects the conservative evangelicals to walk out of the Church of England, though some have threatened to. (In the event, those who do leave will certainly not be joining the Church of Rome.) Most will wait for enough Anglo-Catholics to convert, and eventually, as Robin Ward predicted, their influence in the Anglican Communion will make them even more powerful in the Church of England. Their own form of blackmail is financial. Frank Field, a longtime Labour M.P. from Birkenhead and a devout member of the Church of England, is a pensions expert. ‘We have those historic assets,’ Field told me, ‘but a huge crisis. Right after the war, we took a serious interest in stipends and pensions, and the Synod didn’t have to meet the bill for that until the seventies and even eighties. Since then, the Church commissioners have been on a merry-go-round, trying to thread more money out of its equity base. They lost eight hundred million pounds. Our projected pension contributions are now up forty-eight per cent, and the contributions actually coming in are nowhere near where they should be. The financial clout of the traditional church in running the show is gone. It’s the evangelicals who have the bushy tails and more money than anyone else. When the issue was women priests, they threatened to withhold their quotas. They aren’t doing that this time. Are they up to something else? Because if a hemorrhage of Anglo-Catholics happens it changes all the power relations in the Church. Well, the Pope has put all this on the table.’
Field told me that, given the evangelicals’ threats, he used to think that the wiser course was to protect the conservative Anglo-Catholics by statute: ‘I was wrong. The good example of women in the priesthood has not changed them. What’s changed is that they’re now dressing up their own blackmail as high theology; they have no cards left to play. Rowan is trying to keep this show on the road. He doesn’t want to go down in history as presiding over a mega-breakup of the Church of England. But I look on the Pope’s initiative in two ways. We can say, ‘We’re all coming over, the entire Church of England,’ and call his bluff. Or - and this is what should happen - we say to that Catholic wing of the Church of England, ‘You have another home now. Go with our blessings. The Bishop of Rome wants to meet you.’ ‘
I asked some of the women I met to describe themselves as Christians. ‘The social gospel,’ Judith Maltby said. ‘I am deeply rooted in incarnational theology. History matters - we are responsible for our actions in time and place.’ Christina Rees said, ‘Liberal evangelical, trying to live the social gospel.’ Women like these - engaged in Scripture and in the historicity of Scripture - are perhaps the real majority of the Church of England. ‘We are the mainstream majority,’ Rees corrected me. ‘We are fighting for civility, for the bubble-up of talk and views that has been the beauty of the Communion.’ They are also fighting for their Archbishop’s attention. Three months ago, in an admonitory talk to a conference on Wall Street, Williams preached the example of a ‘good life’ spent spreading the wealth that is ‘the sum of one’s loving relationships with people’ - which does not entirely explain why he spends so much effort in pursuit of ‘loving relationships’ with the most unbending conservatives in his church. ‘Rowan is very mindful of trying to hold on to people who might otherwise leave,’ Jane Hedges, at Westminster Abbey, says. ‘If they do leave, they can’t say, ‘You’ve pushed us out.’ ‘
Robert Key, who sits on the General Synod and - before standing down last week, after twenty-seven years as a Tory M.P. from Salisbury - had been making the case for female bishops in the House of Commons, put it this way: ‘Do you mean that if Rowan had spoken first off, we would have begun by splitting the Church rather than end by splitting the Church? The politician in me thinks he has done things the right way. The Christian in me wishes he would say more.’ And Jane Freeman, in Newham, said, ‘Rowan tends to get very gloomy about the Church of England’s problems - two very conservative wings who have come together over what they’re against - and it’s always painful when people fall away, but it’s not new, it’s always happened. The sense that we must hold on to them - for Rowan, it’s become the principle that covers everything else. Women in the church, women bishops, are an inevitable process in which we seek transparency, and then seem to avoid it. It’s an old story: the Church is in trouble, the Church is diminishing, wait! But you come to any urban center today and you see a community of Anglican priests, men and women, doing what they were meant to do.’
Williams had told me that he would rather be ‘discussing Augustine’ with the Pope than talking about defecting priests and apostolic constitutions. His friends worried that he might. They suspect that the qualities of mind that distinguish him as a scholar - ’Rowan sees three sides of every question,’ one said - are precisely what undermine him as a leader. ‘Rowan is the only one who can hold us together - he has the humility, the holiness, and the intellect,’ John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, told me. ‘But the job is a misuse of his skills, which are spiritual and theological. Instead, he’s got the politics of the Church to handle, and the danger is that we will lose the battle to the kind of people who want to win victories. The issue of women bishops is a straight choice. A bishop is a bishop is a bishop, not a male or a female one. . . . As a pastor, I can understand and care for the people who don’t want women, but as a bishop I would say that we can’t withhold truth and justice in the name of unity. Not anymore.’ Judith Maltby put it this way: ‘My feeling is that Rowan’s head is in the right place - he knows that taking away the right to discriminate is not a form of discrimination. But he’s an emotional man. The pull of that Anglo-Catholic tradition works on him. He’s been bending over backwards to save the marriage - even now, when it turns out that those guys were seeing another woman, in Rome. I have great affection and respect for him. We all do. It would mean so much for the Church if he were to say, just once, ‘I want to be the one who welcomes women to the House of Bishops.’ ‘
The great Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch - whose new book ‘A History of Christianity,’ or, in America, ‘Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,’ prompted Williams to write, ‘It will have few, if any, rivals in the English language’ - told me, ‘Rowan has enormous grace, he gives his opponents space, but he has a lack of killer instinct, which I’m afraid is a necessary quality for leadership.’ MacCulloch, who is gay, trained for the Anglican priesthood, withdrew as an ordained deacon, and later explained his decision this way: ‘I was determined that I would make no bones about who I was; I was brought up to be truthful, and the truth has always mattered to me. The Church couldn’t cope and so we parted company. It was a miserable experience.’ When I asked him about female bishops, he said, ‘The historical against-women argument about twelve male apostles - it comes from the early years of the Christian era and the spectacles put forth by the male leaders, who had wanted to be the ones to ‘see’ Christ first. By the end of the second century, a male leadership had emerged, and after that it became the ‘men were what the Holy Spirit intended’ argument and then the ‘tradition of the church’ argument. It was specious. Slavery was also our ‘tradition’ for seventeen hundred years. If you want a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, you change.’
‘I think we suffer these days from a short-term memory of history,’ Rowan Williams said, that morning at Lambeth Palace. ‘I used to teach early church history, and occasionally I’d say to people, ‘Go and read about the fourth century if you think we’ve got problems.’ In the fourth century, you have bishops invading other bishops’ territories to ordain people, you have three rival bishops in one of the great cities of the empire at the same time, you have a group in North Africa claiming that they alone are the true church and everyone else is wrong. You have basically half a century of really bitter and sometimes violent confrontation around the words of the Creed, and what you learn from that, apart from quite a bit about human sinfulness, is don’t expect Christian conflicts to resolve themselves quite cleanly. Take a deep breath!’
Williams admits that the lessons of fourth-century Christian conflicts are cold comfort to women fighting for equality in their church in 2010. Most of the conflicts dividing the Anglican world today have settled directly on them and, if not on them, on the openly gay priests who are waiting in line behind them - the result, in part, of an epidemic of literalism that is hardly confined to Anglicans. ‘One of the odd things about fundamentalism in its American form, but not exclusively, is that it’s paradoxically a very modern thing,’ he told me. ‘A crude nineteenth-century reaction to a crude nineteenth-century scientism - a kind of mirror image of that positivist yes-or-no knowledge that you can pin down.’ He described it, in England, as a wholesale rejection of intellectual engagement and intellectual depth in Scripture and compared it to what was happening in Islam. ‘I’ve sometimes argued with people on the other side of the river here, in Parliament, saying, Don’t talk about fundamentalist and modern Muslims, talk about primitivist and traditionalist Muslims - ones who only know the Koran and ones who actually know what it is like to have a thickly textured cultural and intellectual Islamic life.’
Earlier, Williams had told me, ‘We Anglicans generally didn’t spot soon enough the degree to which the different parts of the community were drifting apart . . . and the degree to which we’d become too used to talking to ourselves and to the liberal Western world, and left other bits of the world talking to themselves. And somehow we didn’t quite get hold of that.’ He kept returning to the subject of Africa. He said that colonialism had left ‘a deficit of trust’ and that ‘a bitterness and anger arises these days from the sense that someone else is taking up the decisions, just as they always did . . . that someone makes a decision about gay bishops in the United States and we’re the ones who have to have our churches burned by local fanatics. . . . These are very religious societies, and Anglicans can easily feel that they are being left exposed, left looking weak, unconvincing, compared with strong answers coming from elsewhere. . . . Occasionally, I’ve said to people, ‘You think of Peter or Henry’ - Peter Akinola, in Nigeria, and Henry Luke Orombi, the Archbishop of Uganda - ’as ultra-conservative. Let me introduce you to a few of the people to their right so you can see that they are liberals in their own context.’ They are trying to maintain some elements of traditional Anglican discipline and spirituality, to present Anglicanism as a credible faith in their society, and it’s not easy and they feel that we are making it harder.’ He said that, under the circumstances, some ‘mutual self-restraint’ among Western Anglicans could be considered a ‘gift’ to the whole Church.
I was often mystified to hear priests, both conservative and progressive, attribute Williams’s own restraint to Hegel. ‘He’s a Hegelian!’ Jonathan Baker, at Pusey House, told me. ‘He thinks that truth comes out of conflict.’ Giles Fraser, the liberal canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, said, ‘It’s Hegel! You take the two poles and bring them together and the little guy gets crushed between them.’ It seemed to me that the Archbishop had exhausted himself resisting conflict. He wants justice for women in the Church of England; Pauline Perry remembers a dinner at Lambeth Palace, the year Williams was enthroned, where his wife, Jane, raised her glass to the ordination of female bishops, and when I asked him about the elevation of Katharine Jefferts Schori he said, ‘I think the greatest tribute you can pay to women’s ministry is that it has come to look ordinary to have a female in that position.’ Liberals in the Church remember another, more impassioned Williams - the Oxford professor who, in the late eighties, delivered a luminous speech called ‘The Body’s Grace,’ about the theological possibility of same-sex union; or the young bishop who, in the early nineties, put his career on the line by joining a brilliant gay priest named Jeffrey John to speak with his evangelical predecessor at Canterbury, George Carey, on behalf of gays in the clergy. Ten years later, as Primate of All England - under threats of ‘impaired Communion’ from conservative African bishops and conservative priests at home - he stunned those liberals by asking Jeffrey John, who was set to become England’s first gay bishop, to renounce the appointment. John did.
It may be that Williams’s ideas have changed, but in all likelihood it is simply that his job has changed. The women urging him on now are really trying to remind him that, however broad his concern and compassion necessarily are, he is also the Primate of a Western country where women priests - as well as a good number of openly gay priests - have played an impressive role in revitalizing Christian practice and, one would have to say, the Christian imagination. When he talks to them about restraint and patience - about the fullness of time and the ‘positive side to Anglican diffuseness and slowness of decision-making’ and his own anguish ‘trying to counsel patience to people who are suffering more than you are’ - they say, as many of them did to me: The fullness of time is fine, but it’s God’s time. We are living now.
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