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Special Report

By David W. Virtue
July 13, 2010

One British newspaper headline seemed to sum it up: "A divided church faces its darkest hour".

By rejecting a compromise over women bishops last weekend, the General Synod of the Church of England has plunged the Church of England into a crisis from which it cannot easily extricate itself.

Furthermore, the authority of a humiliated Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury has been wounded by his defeat in the Synod.

A compromise resolution submitted by him and the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu went down in flames. Many believe this is the end of the Church of England, as we know it. They may be right.

On Saturday night, the Archbishop of Canterbury suffered the most humiliating defeat of his time in office when the Church rejected his compromise deal over women bishops. It followed a week in which Rowan Williams found himself at the center of a storm over the blocked appointment of Jeffrey John, the homosexual Dean of St Albans, to be Bishop of Southwark.

Castigated by liberals who accused him of betraying his old friend by not securing his promotion, the Archbishop arrived at the General Synod in York facing a mutiny over his plans to avert an exodus of traditionalists opposed to women's ordination, according to the "Daily Telegraph". On the eve of one of the most pivotal debates in the Church's recent history, liberal bishops met to discuss how they would derail proposals put forward by Dr. Williams and Dr. Sentamu.

They were well aware of the impact their rebellion would have on Dr. Williams' authority. But they were still prepared to take drastic action because of their despair at his suggestion that a new tier of male-only bishops should be created to minister to traditionalists. That would undermine the role of women bishops, they believed.

Sitting in the Synod chamber with his hands clasped as he listened to a series of speeches attacking his proposal, Dr Williams looked more like a man grimly awaiting his fate than a leader ready to rally his Church behind him.

The stiflingly humid room bristled with expectation as he stood to make his final bid to win the argument, but the impassioned speech appealing for the Church to unite behind him never came, the Telegraph said.

"We should both be very disappointed if this was seen as some kind of covert loyalty test. Synod must scrutinize our suggestion in the way it would scrutinize any other," said Williams.

Yet, as the vote read out above the murmurs and whispers, it became painfully clear that the Archbishop had been left wounded by this narrow but costly defeat.

One priest, Fr Jonathan Baker, a leading traditionalist rushed to a lectern. His voice cracking with emotion, he said: "The Archbishop of Canterbury said it was not a loyalty test, but we're now in a remarkable position in terms of this business and in terms of our relationship with our bishops and archbishops. We need a serious moment and pause for reflection and prayer."

Anglo-Catholics walked out, shell-shocked at a decision that means that many of them will now be forced to leave the Church they consider to be their home.

By Monday, Forward in Faith issued a statement saying that the draft Measure to permit the ordination of women as bishops, approved by the General Synod and sent for discussion and approval by Diocesan Synods, contains nothing which can satisfy the legitimate needs of members of Forward in Faith.

"Now, though, is not the time for precipitate action. There will be ample opportunity for priests to take counsel together at the Sacred Synods called by the Catholic Bishops in each province in September, and for Forward in Faith to take stock at the National Assembly in October."

Reform leaders issued a statement on the women bishops draft legislation saying that there are two main problems with the measure as it stands.

"First, the provisions made for those who cannot in conscience accept the oversight of a female bishop are inadequate. This measure does not provide a secure future for our ministry within the Church of England.

"Second, we think that given the voting patterns we saw this time, unless the Dioceses recommend some significant changes, we will very likely see this voted down at the 2012 General Synod.

"The positive response to the Archbishops' own amendment shows that there are still options available which have not yet been fully explored and which could give Reform members and others adequate provision. We want to see these explored and will seek discussions to ensure they are."

Looking haggard, the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted that it will be "desperately difficult" to keep the Church of England unified in light of its schismatic vote on women bishops.

In a heartfelt appeal for unity after a particularly fraught week, Dr Rowan Williams called on Anglicans to push ahead with the consecration of women bishops despite the fact that a minority of traditionalists, conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics has threatened to leave the church over the issue.

In a speech to yesterday's synod, Dr Williams urged conservatives to resist the temptation to make any further attempts to stall legislation in favor of women bishops.

"It's very tempting at times of stress and difficulty, such as we've been through in the last couple of days, to think: "We'll drop it in the 'too difficult' basket", the 60-year-old archbishop said. "I don't really think that's an option."

His words clearly had an effect on the 484-seat synod, which spent the entire day hammering out, often in terse scenes, the finer details of how women bishops will be consecrated.

A last-minute bid by conservatives to temporarily delay the legislation by six months was defeated overwhelmingly. The cause of women bishops will now go to individual dioceses for further debate before returning to the synod for final approval some time in 2012.

Even as they smelled victory, Dr. Williams appealed to liberals who had campaigned in favor of women bishops, to be "generous" and accept some sort of arrangement for conscientious objectors who are opposed to female leadership. It was not to be.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury was already aware of "forbidding black clouds on the horizon" when he resigned in 2002. Eight years on, those clouds have opened to devastating effect, unleashing a torrent of rows, recrimination, and division.

"It is difficult to say in what way we are now a communion," Lord Carey has said. "Bitterness, hostility, misunderstanding and strife now separate provinces from one another and divide individual provinces."

While Williams might not have welcomed these comments from his predecessor, he is not blind to their truth. The rift between conservative African provinces and liberal Churches in the West grows wider with every move towards greater acceptance of homosexual clergy.

Despite Williams' appeal that the US Episcopal Church not pursue its liberal agenda and harm the health of the wider Communion, TEC now has two openly gay bishops and has created rites for same-sex blessing services. There can be little doubt that, in time, the Church of England will follow.

Changing Attitude, the Church of England's equivalent of the U.S. pansexual TEC organization Integrity will continue to push, shove, cajole and whine about inclusivity, listening to the pain of gays, bash what they see as pan-African Anglican fundamentalism till they get their way, enabled by a sympathetic culture.

Last week's furor over the blocked appointment of Jeffrey John highlights how divided the Church of England remains on the issue of homosexual clergy. Hurts and suspicions that have simmered beneath the surface since Dr John was forced to stand down from becoming Bishop of Reading in 2003 were exposed once more as evangelicals and liberals traded blows.

The vote over women bishops has exacerbated these problems and brought an increasingly fragmented Church close to breaking point. It is a battle that has left the Archbishop pulled in different directions - trying to reconcile his support for women bishops with his desire to ensure that the consciences of opponents of the reform are respected.

At the same time, he has to look over his shoulder, as the Roman Catholic Church has offered an escape route for traditionalists who no longer feel they can continue to be Anglicans once women clergy are ordained as bishops.

Seventy Anglo-Catholic clergy met with Roman Catholic Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham on July 10 to discuss the possibility of converting to Catholicism under the provisions of Pope Benedict's 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. One Anglican cleric estimated that 200 Anglican clergy are considering conversion.

It was another step forward for the Apostolic Constitution.

British newspapers report that Dr Williams has come to resemble an episcopal version of King Canute, unable to hold back a tide which threatens to destroy a Church that for centuries was broad enough to hold different traditions under one roof.

Radical social changes have brought to a head arguments between biblically conservative churchgoers and the progressive liberals who are keen to see a Church more reflective of secular culture, leaving Dr. Williams overwhelmed.

One solid defender of Williams was his fellow Primate Dr. John Sentamu who came to his defense, warning "enough is enough" in view of the "general disregard for truth" regarding Dr Williams.

"It deeply saddens me that there is not only a general disregard for the truth, but a rapacious appetite for 'carelessness' compounded by spin, propaganda and the resort to misleading opinions paraded as fact, regarding a remarkable, gifted and much-maligned Christian leader I call a dear friend and trusted colleague - one Rowan Williams," he said.

After Saturday's emotional and tense debate, members of the General Synod gathered in York Minster, yesterday, managing to sing from the same hymn sheet for a couple of hours at least.

They could have been forgiven for listening to Dr. Sentamu's sermon about the Samaritan, who was left stripped and beaten by the side of the road, and seeing similarities with Dr Williams.

The beleaguered Archbishop made his way to the Dean of York's garden party after the service, braving a press pack that drank champagne as they mingled with clergy still reeling from the vote on women bishops.

Dressed in a shade of black matching his mood, he looked tense and ill at ease as he mixed with guests in the garden.

When a reporter asked him how he was, he replied tersely, "Three guesses."

In the end, some 40 proposed amendments to an 11-clause measure were considered by General Synod, the church's main legislative body, but only minor changes were given the nod.

Arrangements for those opposed to women's ordination will be outlined in a Code of Practice -- a guide to how the measure will be implemented -- that will be drawn up in the coming months.

In 1992, the Church of England enabled women to be ordained as priests. It was inevitable that in time women bishops would be ordained to the episcopacy. Over time, the number of female clergy has increased, so the number of electing clergy who are opposed to the ordination of women has decreased, resulting in a disproportionate absence of their number from the Synod. Traditionalists are slowly dying off. Most will now flee to Rome with or without an ordinariate. Affirming Catholics will stay put as will the church's liberals, believing they have won.

Evangelicals are still undecided, but they hold more power. Increasingly, the Church of England is becoming more evangelical. Nearly all the seminaries are filled with next generation evangelical ordinands - Ridley Hall, Cambridge; Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Oak Hill, London; St. John's, Nottingham and Trinity College, Bristol. Large evangelical parishes across the country are now weighing their future and the money they can withhold which will affect liberal dioceses. The liberals have no distinct seminary churning out the next generation of clergy willing to debate the niceties of post-modernist sexuality views and modern liberal theology in the pulpit. Furthermore liberals don't plant churches. They steal orthodox ones and tear them apart.

But the deeper truth is that, once women are consecrated bishops, the Church of England -- in whatever form it then remains -- will be indistinguishable from the Episcopal Church. And that's no future at all.


I have posted a number of stories on this historic event starting with the most recent reports back to what took place earlier in the week. We have tried to present the most comprehensive overview of what took place in York at the Church of England Synod including some of the best commentary in the Anglican Communion.

David W. Virtue DD


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