The rejection of female bishops in the Anglican Church brings into relief the trials faced by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, with indications he may rise to the challenge
“I am always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us. Above all in the Church we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed in honesty and in love.”
Those were the words of Bishop Justin Welby in his recent interview. The new Archbishop of Canterbury could not have been appointed at a more turbulent time in the Church of England. Not only is the Church, as ever, in a state of decline and facing the challenge of new atheists, it also faces questions of exclusivism which shed doubt over its relevance in the modern world. But more than ever, issues long debated, but left unanswered, have come to the forefront. The main division in the Church is over the role of women, and same-sex marriage.
As a conservative evangelical, Bishop Welby comes with a different view to his predecessor. Welby was a businessman in the past and has been the Archbishop’s envoy to Africa, particularly working in Nigeria to reconcile Christians and Muslims. The unity of the Church is at stake, and it will need a strong leader to keep it together.
On November 20th the Church Synod voted on whether to allow the appointment of women bishops, they rejected the innovation, to the disappointment of many in the Church. Welby said this was a ‘very grim day’.
When Welby was asked about these impending decisions, he answered the challenging questions by stating that it is about Jesus. He argued that the most important thing was to ensure that we are called to love in the same way as Jesus loves us. Rather than being drawn into debate, he instead focused on getting back to what the Bible teaches.
I found this impressive, but is it bravery or again avoiding making a stand? What is the role of the Archbishop? The failure of instituting female bishops came as a surprise by many as the majority of leaders voted for the motion. However it failed to pass, by only a mere six votes, through the House of Laity, who are notably a more conservative minded group. Should the Archbishop have power to overrule a decision? I would always argue that democracy should prosper. Nevertheless, this begs the question of what role does the Archbishop have, and how much power comes with that role.
Unfortunately, unlike what many outsiders imagine, the Archbishop has very little power to change things. Unlike the Roman Catholic Pope, the role is really as a public figurehead for the Church, instead of leading with any prerogative. Whereas historically the Archbishop and Church held a powerful role in politics, church and state are now very much separate. With these new issues of female bishops and same-sex marriage, I would argue that the Church should never be above the law. Jesus advocated adhering to government. If another organisation were to disallow women from positions of authority they would be rightly accused of discrimination. Following Tuesday’s decisions there have been calls from some quarters for the government to step in and put pressure on the Church to pass the bill.
The reasons behind the conservative criticism of female leadership is down to its lack of distinct authority in the Bible. Paul directly states that women should not be in a position of authority over men. Some would argue that this teaching has to be taken into context of the time and situation. Others take the stance that it is not discriminatory, as women have other equally important roles to play in church life.
However, this female bishop bill would actually be in keeping with the Bible, in not oppressing anyone based on gender, race or class. “All of us are one in Christ, whether Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free” (Gal. 3:28). There is evidence that women had leadership roles in the early church and Paul was referring to a particular problem with certain women in the Corinthian community. Furthermore, it seems to go against the teaching of Jesus.
The debate will unfortunately endure. I believe Welby’s concern for humility and loving others as Jesus did is a simple but important way to keep the Church in unity despite its fractions. The archbishop should be the figurehead, as someone who has studied scripture in detail and appointed in faith to follow God’s law. However, will he ever have power to change the conservative lay opinion on such matters? Many Christians, even Anglicans, know little about his role, or how synod works. Instead the vicars they see weekly and the leaders in the individual churches are the ones who are most influential. Nevertheless, Welby has a unique position of both being their spokesman, leader and adviser. I hope that like his predecessor he will stand up for the rights of women and the homosexual community in the Church. In a way, that is right in view of the Bible’s teaching and is compassionate and conciliatory.
It is written in 1 Peter 3:8-9: “All of you should be of one mind, full of sympathy toward each other, loving one another with tender hearts and humble minds.” The Church is reeling from such a distinct parting of opinion, they need someone who can heal divisions and speak on their behalf. Although the decision is the outcome of a democratic vote and we will have to wait three years to change the outcome, many will be optimistic with a new leader to reconcile and lead the Church forwards. The Church needs a leader who speaks bravely about the truth of what the Bible says and what Jesus taught about society and individuals.
The Archbishop may not have power to bring about quick changes, however he does have a role to lead a vast and diverse church. Welby has already achieved great success bringing together Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, hopefully he can use this experience to bring the Church together despite its differences.
“I am always averse to the language of exclusion…Above all in the Church we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed in honesty and in love.”
Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9663508/Justin-Welby-the-new-Archbishop-of-Canterbury.html
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