Church in the lurch

The great and good of Anglicanism are in York for what could be the most explosive General Synod for centuries. Paul Vallely explains the issues that are at stake

Big words are being thrown around in the Church of England these days; words such as schism, with echoes from 1,000 years ago when the world divided between Rome and the Orthodox; words such as Reformation, with echoes of the split between Catholic and Protestant, which spilt a deal of English blood in the 16th century.

Some 1,333 vicars and other clerics have written to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York threatening to leave the church if its General Synod presses ahead this weekend with the idea of women bishops.

Ho-hum, says the rest of society, for whom gender and sexuality equality has become an unquestioning desideratum, if not an always practised norm, over the past decades. For those with a secularist world view such debates have become a yawning irrelevance. But the air is febrile with a sense of history in the church and for reasons which are not always immediately apparent to outsiders. Women and gays have become its totems.

This weekend's meeting comes hard on the heels of a gathering of 300 conservative bishops and archbishops in Jerusalem, which they infelicitously named Gafcon. It announced the creation of a new grouping of Anglicans which does not recognise the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Poor old Rowan Williams, they decided, was part of the spiritual vacuum which has sent the Western world into a spiral of moral decline. In his place, they have set up a new Primates Council and written their own orotund declaration of faith.

Attitudes are hardening. In two weeks, the rest of the bishops of the Anglican Communion will meet in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, the once-a-decade meeting of high-ranking clergy from around the world to discuss the situation. It will be a nodal point.

Since the crisis began – triggered by the consecration of a non-celibate gay, Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the United States in 2003 – Rowan Williams has made a succession of compromises to conservative evangelicals to avoid a split in the church. But with the setting up of the alternative structures by Gafcon his tone has changed. He has allowed his exasperation to become public, and questioned the legitimacy and authority of the rebels.

His fellow senior bishops have been even more robust. The Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, described the dissidents as militant fundamentalists whose manifesto read like something drawn up by a student union during the era of Marxist revolution. It was, he said, "nonsense". And the conservative Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright – whom the Gafcon-ites had hoped would attend their Jerusalem gathering – described their action as "deeply offensive" and a form of "bullying".

It would be easy to dismiss all this internal bickering in a club with a declining membership. But there are 77 million Anglicans across the globe, a number which, in contrast to steadily falling numbers of churchgoers in the UK, is elsewhere growing rapidly. It has an important role in a world gripped by violent religious fundamentalism in which good religion is a far more effective tool to combat bad religion than a disdainful or dismissive secularism.

And it matters to us as a nation because, as a report by the Von Hügel Institute recently demonstrated, the charitable work quietly performed by the Church of England's volunteers – in job-creation projects, urban regeneration programmes, aid agencies, eco-initiatives, youth clubs and with the homeless, the bereaved and asylum-seekers – saves the nation hundreds of millions of pounds. Home Office statistics show regular churchgoers are 48 per cent more likely to do such work than their secular counterparts.

But the debate between the religion of the present and the past is not couched in such terms. Its language is that of theology and social justice. "The argument for women bishops," says Christina Rees, of Women and the Church, who is a member of the Synod meeting in York today, "is simply that God created men and women equal".

Equal but different, says Rod Thomas, of the conservative evangelical group, Reform. "Our understanding of the Bible is that there is equality but also a divinely ordered difference that [St] Paul says goes back right to the Creation, showing the different ways God wants us to respond to him, leading and guiding but also submitting to his will."

Then there are the Anglo-Catholics who insist that the C of E is only part of a church which includes Rome and the Orthodox. They quote the Vatican's Cardinal Kasper, who has warned that "realistically" the move to women bishops will "institutionalise schism" and end the possibility of unity.

Finally, there are the liberals, epitomised by Dr Giles Fraser, president of a group called Inclusive Church (which includes gay priests among others), who insists on contextualising unchanging faith principles in a changing world.

"If you read the Bible as a whole rather than just quoting selective bits, it tells the story of how at the beginning God was thought to be there just for a narrow band, the Chosen People, and it then shows how God gradually breaks down that narrow understanding to reveal that he is there for everyone; the idea that only men can represent God cuts against the whole of the Bible story."

For all that, the rows about the role of women and the inclusion of practising gays do not run along the exact same faultlines. "Women bishops is an issue of church order not a gospel issue," says Rod Thomas. "Homosexuality is about sin and what keeps people from God. Women is therefore a secondary issue." Nor are those who question women bishops automatically uncomfortable with women priests. "When women became priests it was possible for a male vicar not to have that impinge upon him," he says. "It didn't compromise his theology about male headship in the church. But a woman bishop does."

The battle on women priests is now well-won. Last year, for the first time, more women than men were ordained. Nearly a quarter of C of E priests – more than 2,000 – are women. They work everywhere from the smallest parishes to the largest cathedral and serve as chaplains in schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and the armed forces. They include two deans, nine archdeacons and 18 cathedral canons. "Women priests have brought a certain warmth and approachability to the priesthood," says Christina Rees. "They share more, delegate more, and show a greater willingness to collaborate."

In fact, the battle over women bishops has largely been won too. A third of the provinces of the Anglican Communion – including several who attend the Gafcon conference – have voted for women as bishops. In Canada, New Zealand and the United States, women have been elected to the episcopate for several years.

In the Church of England, the General Synod endorsed the principle of women bishops years back. What the present row is about is the measures the church will introduce to provide for those who wish to remain in the Church of England but who say they cannot, on grounds of conviction, accept this development.

Three options are before the meeting. The one endorsed by the House of Bishops, which its critics describe as a "like it or lump it" option, proposes the change be introduced with a code of conduct on how to accommodate the conservative dissenters. It would abolish the practice of "flying bishops" introduced when women were first ordained in 1994 to minister to opponents of women priests. The other clear proposal is for "non-geographical" dioceses to minister to such priests and parishes. Opponents say they would be a church within a church.

In between is a middle option, with four variants, for complex relationships with "complementary bishops" to work within the existing structure. This is the option which no faction prefers but which might be agreed.

"Those who disagree with women bishops are only a small minority but they make a lot of noise," says Christina Rees, who favours the bishops' recommendation. "They are a very small tail wagging a very big dog." Only 2 per cent of parishes ever asked for flying bishops, she says, and only 7 per cent said they weren't prepared to have a woman as their next vicar.

Anglo-Catholics have threatened to leave in large numbers. "We're trying to find a way to stay in, not to leave," says Canon David Holding, leader of the catholic group opposed to females in the episcopacy. He wants a separate non-geographical diocese for dissenters. "It's the only option that will give us adequate protection; [the middle-way option with] all the variations will be incredibly complicated to implement."

The liberals are dead set against that. "The non-geographical diocese would be a bridgehead for a Gafconite takeover," says Dr Giles Fraser. The conference in Jerusalem has made the liberals far less likely to concede that option. Gafcon's closing statement may have insisted that it was not a breakaway from the Anglican Communion, nor an attempt to take over its institutions by hardliners who think the CofE ought to be out there campaigning to convert British Muslims. But many liberals just do not believe them. "You can dress an elephant in a tutu and insist that it's a ballerina," one liberal blogger said, "but it still poops big and eats peanuts."

The changing face of the Church of England

*About 1.7 million people a month will attend at least one Church of England service.

*Between 1968 and 2004, regular weekly attendance at Church of England services fell by 44 per cent (although the decline has now been arrested).

*Nearly a quarter of Church of England priests – more than 2,000 – are women.

*They include two deans, nine archdeacons and 18 cathedral canons.

*Last year, for the first time, more women than men were ordained.

*The average age of male parish priests is 54.

*29 per cent of churchgoers are 65 or over.

*Since 1968, a 10th of Anglican churches in England have been made redundant.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?