Thinking Anglicans, to which I am grateful for much information, has juxtaposed two items of news which made me reflect on the similarities. One is about women bishops, the other about same-sex partnerships.
Both are stories of majorities becoming minorities and then becoming unpopular schismatics. At each step along the way the amount of respect due to one’s opponents has to be reassessed, and may not last long before it needs to be reassessed again. How will the decisions being made now look in 10 years’ time? In 50 years? Will they look like politically-inspired fudges or far-sighted solutions?
To make my point I begin with a third story, one which I think is pretty complete. 100 years ago it was well known as a proven fact, backed up by the world’s leading scientists, that blacks had not evolved as far as whites. This is why the British Empire benefited them, by providing them with good government. Gradually the consensus about white superiority got challenged. The evidence built up. The people who thought blacks the same as whites except for the colour of their skin became a majority. Eventually it became illegal to discriminate on grounds of race. White supremacists changed from majority to minority, and then from accepted minority to rejected, disapproved-of minority.
At each stage in this change, those engaged in legislation, provision of resources and moral analysis had to make their judgements in the light of the situation in their day without knowing the future. Public opinion counted for a lot, even when ill-informed. Today it is possible to denounce racists and refuse to negotiate with them; 50 years ago political reality made that impossible.
In the case of women priests and bishops, we seem to be going through the same process but haven’t got as far. It is almost 100 years ago that Modern Church argued the case for women priests, but we were a tiny minority out on a limb. Our opponents, once the establishment, became a minority. In 1993 they were given extra legal protection in the Act of Synod.
In 2012 the Church’s leadership was still thinking in those terms. The July and November sessions of General Synod were each presented with a version of Clause 5(1)(c) designed to protect the interests of opponents: in other words the archbishops were still thinking of them as a legitimate minority opinion, part of the broad spectrum of belief. However the public outcry, when the November vote failed to reach a sufficient majority, made it absolutely clear that public opinion had moved on. Most people saw opposition to women bishops not as a respectable minority opinion, but as immoral. The archbishops got the message. Nevertheless they still have to conduct the legislative negotiations on the basis that the opponents are a respectable minority with an ongoing place in the Church. We haven’t got as far with women bishops as we have with racism. If we get women bishops within the next couple of years, we will probably get them on a basis which will look shabby in a generation’s time.
The third story is at a yet earlier stage. It was not till the 1960s that a few brave churchpeople proposed that same-sex partnerships should no longer be deemed immoral, and once again many of the leading figures were members of Modern Church. Again disapproval was once the establishment view, not just in the Church but in society as a whole. As society became more tolerant the majority view became a minority view. On this topic church leaders are still positively trying to resist the tide, at least in their official capacities.
The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury is instructive. Rowan Williams was given a miserable time by church leaders across the world who were determined to split the Anglican Communion over the issue. Faced with the prospect of schism Archbishop Williams used his influence, and the power of the Anglican Communion Office, to appease them. They were having none of it. There were a number of overt schismatic acts, none more significant than the GAFCON conference timed to coincide with the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a deliberate snub to the Archbishop. Nothing could have stated more clearly their view that they were right and the rest of us were just plain wrong.
Yet Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, offered GAFCON’s 2013 conference a supportive message. I wonder how Rowan Williams felt about that.
This GAFCON Conference has just ended, with a Nairobi Communique and Commitment. Much of it makes it clear that this is a movement centred on opposing same-sex partnerships. The schismatic intentions are as emphatic as ever:
In 2008, the first GAFCON was convened in order to counter a false gospel which was spreading throughout the Communion. This false gospel questioned the uniqueness of Christ and his substitutionary death, despite the Bible’s clear revelation that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). It undermined the authority of God’s Word written. It sought to mask sinful behaviour with the language of human rights. It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful …
Our willingness to submit to the written Word of God and our unwillingness to be in Christian fellowship with those who will not, is clearly expressed in The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration. This means that the divisions in the Anglican Communion will not be healed without a change of heart from those promoting the false gospel…
We urge those who have promoted the false gospel to repent of their unfaithfulness and have a renewed confidence in the gospel.
To summarise, ‘We are only prepared to be united with you if you agree with everything we say and publicly repent of any contrary views you may have held in the past’.
As far as I am aware the opponents of women bishops have long since given up making polemical statements like this. I have no idea how Archbishop Welby can, or should, handle a group like this, but I fear that the best he can do is to find political fudges to keep the show on the road until public opinion makes this kind of posturing too unpopular. We have a long way to go.