Right Wing Morality is Costing the Church of England Dearly

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At last. The Church of England’s General Synod has voted to allow women bishops. A disastrous failure to do so in 2012 preceded Rowan Williams’s departure as Archbishop, and led to huge public and political pressure to secure the “Yes” vote this time. It’s taken so long to get here (women were first ordained priests in 1994), and created such bad feeling, that the “victory” feels a bit hollow. The whole tale reveals a lot about the Church of England’s problems, and the position of religion in a liberal society.

The CofE remains the largest religious constituency in Britain, with a third of the population still calling themselves Anglican. But whether we look at church attendance, adherence, or baptism and funerals, decline is sharp. For those aged over-60 Anglican is the majority identity; for each younger generation it’s increasingly a minority identity. Only about five percent of young people now call themselves Anglican.

Whatever their personal views, church leaders have stalled on the ordination of women because of their deference to two small but vocal minority parties within the CofE.
There are many reasons for this, but one is a church hierarchy which has fallen out of step with the moral convictions of its members. Since the 1980s the latter have been getting more liberal on moral matters, and more committed to freedom and equality, while the former have been travelling in the opposite direction. For a broad church, and one of the last remaining national state churches in Europe, this is particularly serious—for it’s a church that exists for the whole of society, not just active churchgoers.

My surveys of Anglican beliefs and values show just how much the “values gap” between leaders and people has widened with every generation. Only 1% of Anglican churchgoers now say they rely on their religious leaders when seeking guidance and making decisions. When it comes to the two most controversial contemporary moral debates—on same-sex marriage and assisted dying—a majority of Anglicans are now in favour, whereas their leaders are united in opposition.

A similar gap has long been evident between the Church’s official teachings and its members’ views about women clergy. A mere 11% of Anglicans and 8% of the general population say that they approve of their church’s policies on women. As long ago as 1979 a poll found 85% of Anglicans in favour of women’s ordination, and last year the same proportion was found to support women bishops.

Whatever their personal views, church leaders have stalled on the ordination of women because of their deference to two small but vocal minority parties within the CofE: Anglo-Catholics at one end of the ecclesiological spectrum, and the conservative evangelicals at the other. Together they represent less than 15% of Anglicans.

Anglo-Catholics opposed women clergy on the grounds that the sacramental priesthood has always been male, that the priest symbolises a male Christ, and that there is no good reason to depart from 2,000 years of tradition. Like Rowan Williams, they worried about maintaining good relations with Rome and with Orthodoxy. Conservative evangelicals opposed women bishops on the grounds of Biblical texts which they interpret as proof that women should not have authority over men in either home or church.

An unlikely alliance of these “male headship” Protestants and Anglo-Catholics has called the shots on this issue until now. Their hand has been strengthened by selective alliances with Anglican bishops in Africa. This has created resentment amongst many Anglicans, and incomprehension amongst the general population. When I ask young people who have a negative attitude to the CofE why they hold that opinion the most common reason is that the Church is sexist and homophobic.

The story of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in the USA is different. Despite opposition, they approved women priests, bishops—and now an archbishop—earlier and with less damage. But the English Archbishops have chosen to side with the African churches rather than the north American.

There’s a popular argument that illiberal forms of religion do better than liberal forms, even in liberal societies. I don’t believe it’s that clear-cut. It’s true that religious authorities have taken a “post-liberal” turn since the 1970s, but the growing rise of “no religion,” first in Europe and then the USA, is in part a reaction against this. The idea that your average Anglican in Britain yearns for “stricter” religion is demonstrably false. They would, however, have preferred a church which was more responsive to their moral convictions, and better able to accommodate the diversity of their views.

l.woodhead@lancaster.ac.uk'

Linda Woodhead [@LindaWoodhead] is professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and director of the Westminster Faith Debates. www.faithdebates.org.uk

  • Scott MacDougall

    Good piece. Just a point of clarification. There is mention of the Episcopal Church having a female archbishop. The Episcopal Church is headed by a woman, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. But Bishop Katharine is a bishop, not an archbishop. Bishop is the highest ecclesiastical rank in our church. We elect one of our bishops to serve as Presiding Bishop. This person remains a bishop, even while functioning as “first among equals” while in office. Once her term ends, she returns to being a bishop, serving among her peer bishops, just as she did previously.

  • https://www.facebook.com/etseq97 etseq

    Great article Linda. One point about the Anglo-Catholics though. Unlike the evos, the most extremely conservative ACs have probably all swam the tiber by now leaving the evos as the only real source of reactionary anglicanism. That said, the evangelicals do represent the largest portion of the Synod, both clergy and laity at around 40% due to the byzantine rules regarding selection. So, while the people in the pews are much more liberal than the hierarchy, the liberals will have a hard time capturing control of the decision making powers within the Church. This is, of course, a recipe for disaster but when you believe God is on your side, martyrdom can be an attractive option.

  • Whiskyjack

    a church hierarchy which has fallen out of step with the moral convictions of its members

    Surely this encapsulates the reason for the declining influence of the CofE and other religions more generally. There was a time when churches were seen as the sources of moral convictions for their followers. That time has passed, and now it seems that the churches must change their teachings or else lose their following.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    God’s law is not up for negotiation.

    The church ought never affirm sin of any kind.

    Women clergy is another matter and reflects the freedom of God (to use who He will use, regardless of gender) and equality.

  • Jeannie Armstrong

    We are a broad church but we must still stay on the narrow path.

  • Stan Theman

    The Episcopal Church has a Presiding Bishop;there are no archbishops.
    Why “Rome” but “the Orthodox”? Why not “Catholics and Orthodox”?

  • Stan Theman

    Ultimately “Progressives” don’t need religion; neither do the main supports of “Progressive” social and political causes in the US, upper middle class Whites and east Asians.
    Mainline Protestantism is basically Something (Not That Many) White People Like.
    Why bother with the Unitarians or Quakers (unless you want to go to Sidwell Friends or Moses Brown) or the Episcopalians or United Church of Christ? There are more effective ways of doing politics.

  • LogicGuru

    Because WE (Episcopalians, members of the Anglican Communion) are Catholic (but not ROMAN Catholic)! Hrrumph!

  • Stan Theman

    I’m sorry for not making myself completely clear: why “Roman Catholic” but not “Eastern Orthodox”-I’m guessing you consider your church Orthodox.
    Is there some sort of pathetic lingering resentment from the 17th century still buzzing around in you heads? If so, this may be one of the dozens of reasons an increasing number of people think of churches as defensive and self-obsessed.
    Just an atheist observation.

  • LogicGuru

    Hey, it’s just a cutesy joke. Episcopalians make a little thing about being “Catholic” and some of us were told in confirmation class: “And, if you are asked, ‘Are you Catholic’ say ‘Yes, Episcopalian.’” It’s supposed to be mildly funny–no defensiveness, self-obsession of lingering resentment. Just a little self-mockery. Give us a break: we religious folk can find our religion amusing.

  • Stan Theman

    Then why don’t you do this with “Orthodox”? I’m guessing lingering historical bitchiness has to do with this more than any sense of humor.
    If there weren’t pathetic resentments and defensiveness, you wouldn’t be making “a little thing” about this word, would you?

  • LogicGuru

    OK, just one more shot, though I doubt that you’re gonna believe me. Colloquially, “Catholic” as an adjective—as in “more Catholic”—means “high church.” And many of us get a kick out of the fact that the Episcopal Church is more Catholic than the (Roman) Catholics—with fancier outfits, more incense, more candles on the altar, and more gay priests—in our case, female as well as male. We think we’re a little bit silly. And since we are the quintessential Protestants—the “P” in WASP—this is supposed to be mildly amusing. Jeez, you atheists just don’t have much of a sense of humor.

  • George Waite

    I’d believe you if your “colloquially” referred to the general population and not to a very small number of people in a church barely 1.9 million-and probably not to all of them.
    Say “Catholic” to over 90% of your neighbors, they’ll think “the majority church of south western Europe, the one with the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans”. “The ones who started getting interested in silk, lace, satin and incense in the mid/late 19th century in England” probably won’t come to mind for most people.
    You enjoy mincing around in chasubles and waving a metal purse on fire? Cute. But it’s a minority movement in a very small church and not what I, or most people, refer to as “Catholic”.

  • LogicGuru

    OK. In-house joke. And it was, of course, Talullah Bankhead at Smokey Mary’s (where I spent some time) who made the famous purse-on-fire remark. (or do you have another version of the story?) My point was that it was a joke, not an expression of defensiveness or whatever.