Comment on the Week: Is the Church of England facing a crisis?

Following hotly in the footsteps of the BBC, we now have the Church of England facing a crisis with internal strife and problems relating to the issue of women bishops. The departing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, argued for it as did the incoming one, Justin Welby. Two of the three houses of the Church of England’s governing synod, representing bishops and clergy, overwhelmingly voted for it, together with a large majority of the House of Laity. However, it was not large enough, and on November 20th a measure, which, would have cleared the way for women bishops in Anglicanism’s mother church failed to pass. There was immediate talk of a church “committing suicide”. Calls are now being made for Parliament to step in.

The Church has been accused of appearing to be a “sect” rather than a national church. The position of the Church of England is not unique, but, it holds a special place within society in England as the established church. Unlike the Church of Ireland which was disestablished in 1869,

The status of the church is now being questioned, namely whether or not the position which it holds within society should change. The fact that the Queen is the Supreme Governor and that 26 Bishops sit in the House of Lords illustrates the position which it holds within the state.

The criticism relating to the Church came thick and fast after the announcement of the vote. The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, appearing outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision. If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation. These are two such criticisms against the decision.

Six of the 70m-strong Anglican Communion’s 38 autonomous provinces—America, Australia, Canada, Cuba, New Zealand and Southern Africa—already have women bishops. A further dozen have approved them, but do not yet have any. None has made any provision for an opt-out. However, three-quarters of Anglicans are now in Africa, and most of them are passionately opposed to the idea.

The established church is declining. Although four out of ten Britons still describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England, barely 800,000 regularly attend services, half the level in 1970, and only one in eight English children are baptised into the church. The introduction of women priests has done nothing to halt this slide. Nor would women bishops.

Yet the vote has dismal consequences for the established church. Even socially-conservative MPs quickly disparaged it. There is talk of forcing the church to bend to equality laws. Britons now view sex equality as a settled matter, and are beginning to feel the same way about gay marriage. The Church of England’s rows over such issues provoke mystification, which threatens to turn into outright hostility.

On another note there was the announcement of the G8 summit coming to Northern Ireland. This brought both praise and concern from all quarters, but, it has to be said that it is great to see Northern Ireland placed on the world stage for a positive rather than a negative. One can only hope that the meeting goes off without too much trouble.


Commentary from Aaron Callan and illustrations by Brian Spencer.

  • should have put a bishop’s hat on Merkel… ooh hindsight..

  • mollymooly

    Crossposted at the Economist.

  • Billy Ghoti

    Surely if it was God’s will to have women Bishops, He would have made it happen? He would have had the Laity all vote in favour of women Bishops?

  • Newman

    Plus ca change…the 1832 Reform Act, Tract 90 and a parliament that thinks it might be wise to interfere with the manner in which the Church debates theology…the actual issue is not whether there are going to be women bishops within Anglicanism, but how you cater for those who theologically do not accept (as the largest Christian church does not) that the priesthood was meant to be male. A heavy handed secular intervention is to no one’s advantage…a little patience.. and I suspect change will be agreed. 5 years in terms of the Church is but a moment.

  • Conservatives massively overplayed their hand on this one; this was the best deal they were going to get. As a result of blocking a move which had overwhelming support, to hold out for a few extra concessions of minor importance, they will ensure the great sleeping beast that is the small ‘l’ liberal Middle England C of E actually wakes up and pays attention to who their Deanery Synod reps are come the next round of internal elections. And that will mean a House of Laity considerably more liberal and less compromising than at present not only on gender issues, but as a consequence also on homosexuality. I would expect pretty sweeping changes in the House of Laity delegations from London, Chichester, Oxford, Winchester and Manchester in particular.

    The Forward in Faith/Reform alliance of the past 20 years has been particularly bizarre. Many active members of Reform don’t really regard Anglo-Catholics, or indeed most other Anglicans, as being properly Christian at all while many FiFers have a fairly low view of Scriptural authority. Many FIFers (and I mean many) are also actively, and increasingly openly, gay as well.

    The FiFers who are remotely prepared to go to Rome have mostly gone and in recent times when they’ve attempted to get whole parishes to defect most of the laity has stayed in the C of E, not least because many of them are pro-women priests, whatever Father thinks, anyway. Reform types will eventually have to give a sensible answer to the question “why do you remain in a Church where you regard most of your fellow members as not really pukka Christians.” Again, many ordinary people in the pews in conservative Evangelical parishes, especially younger people, are not exactly on board with the party line on gender and sexuality…