by Linda Woodhead

The historic churches have come to love the idea of the common good. It's there at the heart  of Catholic social teaching, and it shapes the whole ethos of the Church of England. It seems to have been  the guiding principle of Rowan William's leadership, and it shapes the way decisions are taken  from parishes up to Synod. Unity at all costs.

It's been a disaster. It's a charter for minority views to hold everyone justice.  'Mrs X is not happy, her conscience is troubled' becomes the trump card when you are seeking the common good. The fact that Mrs X may be wrong, or supporting an injustice, become matters of secondary importance.

This goes together with a characteristically Anglican ethic which elevates gentleness and peaceableness  and proscribes any form of anger. You can be saddened, but you can never have a knockabout row.  It's not a good recipe for testing views and arriving at the truth.

You can see how it plays out in the way meetings are run. Taking a vote is seen as divisive, unfraternal. You have to come to a common mind. What this means in practice is that he or she who speaks up - or runs the meeting - often wins the day, regardless of whether anyone agrees. Protest is difficult, for it appears strident and 'selfish'.

You can see the same principle at work it in the way Rowan has considered maintenance of the unity  of the Anglican communion a greater good than support for the cause of women and gay people in the church.  Even the slow death of the church in Europe is considered a price worth paying for the ever-receding goal  of the common good.

The very constitution of synod has been set up according to this principle. Not first past the post  but a 2/3 majority in all houses. This is why 72.6% of synod members can vote for women bishops,  all but two dioceses support it, and 6 lay votes can defeat the measure. Don't complain or celebrate though,  because we should all maintain the image of one happy family.

But isn't 'oneness' Christian? Shouldn't the church be showing the world a higher way? Yes it should.  But it's actually rather hard to find Biblical support for 'Christianity unity' or the common good.  John 17:21 'they all may be one' is made to do an awful lot of work. There's rather a deal more in Jesus' teaching  about hating father and mothers, and setting brother against brother. 'Do not suppose that I have come  to bring peace to the earth. I came to bring not peace but a sword.'

Human society is made up of groups and individuals who pursue their own interests, often selfishly,  and who sometimes act hatefully and abusively. Even when individuals are good, society is likely  to be full of conflict. People will only come to a common mind in the Kingdom of Heaven  or behind the philosophers' fanciful 'veil of ignorance'. This is why argument is necessary,  and why democracy seeks not the common good, but the best and most proportionate compromises  and reconciliations of interests. Contestation, debate and democracy aren't infallible ways to truth,  but they are the best way we have.

Being principled shouldn't consist in imposing your will on everyone else, but in having the humility  to accept what the majority believes to be right - even if they're not. You can campaign to get them  to change their minds, but you can't bind them forever with your own purity of conscience.

This is even more true when you're talking about an established church. If the Church of England  wants to continue to claim a privileged relation to state and society, then it surely has to take seriously  the settled and conscientious views of state and society -- including the view that women are equal to men  and capable of wielding power responsibly.

The longing for unity goes back to the very origins of Anglicanism. It is understandable in the light  of the era of civil conflict and war which it sought to end. But the imposition of uniformity never worked,  and the dream of Christian unity was never realistic.

Clinging to an impossible ideal of unity discounts justice, and paints honest disagreement as dishonourable troublemaking. You can see the fruits of this state of mind in where the Church of England  has ended up in its treatment of women.


Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. Her main interest is in documenting and analysing  religious change in modern societies, relating it to wider social changes, and thinking through practical  and political implications.