Sixteen years after the first women priests were ordained in the Church of England, the bitter controversy about female authority in the church refuses to go away. This weekend it reached a new stage, when the archbishops of Canterbury and York narrowly failed to persuade the General Synod to accept a compromise on women bishops. Could it be time, perhaps, to end the acrimony and accept that the Church of England will have to split?
It is no exaggeration to say that the climate in the Anglican church for a generation and the whole of Rowan Williams's seven-year tenure at Canterbury have been poisoned by the conflict between liberals and traditionalists, of which the role of women is a touchstone. The church is divided nationally, and it is divided even more deeply internationally. In essence, it could be said, there are already two Anglican churches, with the Archbishop of Canterbury striving heroically to hold them together.
Dr Williams's concern to avoid a schism deserves respect, along with the efforts he has personally made to try to prevent it. But he has not been able to resolve the conflict over the elevation of women priests, which has become a defining theme of his tenure. Indeed, it is proof of how little real progress has been made, that the proposed compromise on women bishops replicated in almost every respect the compromise eventually agreed over women priests. A female bishop would have had full authority in her diocese but would "refrain from exercising her functions" in parishes that did not accept her. Opposition came from two sides: from those who oppose women bishops in principle, and from those who feared that women would be second-class bishops in an increasingly two-track church.
Some might argue that the vote this weekend was so narrowly lost that the acceptance of women bishops will be only a matter of time. Yet the truth is that women will be accepted as bishops only if their authority is restricted – which will resolve nothing. And as long as the controversy remains open, the church will be weakened and the authority of its leaders will be compromised as they try to bridge what cannot be bridged.
At root, women's role in the church is a doctrinal issue, and the disagreement is no less principled than other causes of schisms have been in the past. The Archbishops should make common cause with the liberals and regretfully go their own way, in the interests of a more modern, and stronger, Church of England.
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