State Church or State Sect?

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The Church of England is currently in deep crisis over the issue of women clergy. You can find the details easily enough on countless news sites, but I want to focus on a rather different aspect of the debate, and the way in which we argue about religion. And that story has sizable implications on both sides of the Atlantic.

That Church has long since ordained women to most clerical positions, and most observers thought that it was finally about to take the final plunge in accepting female bishops. On November 19, though -- a date that will live in ecclesiastical infamy -- the Church's General Synod startlingly voted against a carefully crafted compromise that would have respected most conservative objections.

The consequences are still being worked out, but secularist politicians are rejoicing that a church so discredited can no longer voice effective opposition to the full implementation of gay marriage. Conceivably, public outrage could lead to the Church being subjected to England's draconian "Equality" laws, so that it would have to accept women bishops as a matter of employment law.

Plenty of serious theologians have explored these issues, and reached their conclusions. Archbishop Rowan Williams, a towering intellectual, strongly supports the cause of women bishops, and sees the new decision as a major defeat. Williams and others base their views on the vast and ancient resources of the wider church, which in the Anglican case means a combination of reason, tradition, and scripture. Historically, radical Christians have often driven the cause of gender equality, while around the world today, emerging churches are potent forces for women's rights. Without going outside the Christian tradition, you can make an excellent theological case in favor of consecrating women at all levels of this or any church.

What has been striking about the recent English debate, though, is the extreme rarity of anything approaching a theological rationale. Both inside the church and outside, the standard argument goes something like this: society has changed fundamentally, and the church has to accept and absorb these changes, as a matter of "moving with the times." In the words of Prime Minster David Cameron, the Church of England needs to "get with the program."

Rowan Williams himself complains that, "it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of wider society. ... We have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society." Other leaders, lay and clerical, were nothing like as subtle in their statements that "Society" leads, and the church must follow. Given another couple of years, we will presumably hear identical statements about same-sex marriage.

Lost in such rhetoric is any suggestion that this church, or any religious institution, follows an authority over and above that of general social trends and priorities, as interpreted by politicians and the mass media. The church's sole duty, it seems, is to turn to the editorial pages of the Guardian or the New York Times, and to follow the stern injunction, "Go and do thou likewise!" Any historical sense might remind us that on occasion, "Society" has a bad habit of forming a consensus that is wrong and dangerous, and that it is an excellent idea for the church not to move with these particular times. At times, resistance is justified or even demanded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had some vital things to say on these matters.

Logically, there is no reason why in decades to come, the church will not face comparable pressures to accept other trends that presently seem monstrous or unacceptable, but which will in due course win popular support. That juggernaut "Program" is a constantly growing and evolving beast. In such circumstances, there are literally no aspects of the Christian tradition or scripture that would give the slightest protection against calls to conform.

One senior Anglican official had an interesting comment on the present debacle. Tony Baldry said that "As a consequence of the decision by the General Synod, the Church of England no longer looks like a national church, it simply looks like a sect like any other sect. If the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the nation."

In other words, a state church has to accept the consensus of the state and the society it represents, whatever that consensus might be, and if it does not, it must consign itself to the status of a sect. In the context, "sect" has something of the loopy and even dangerous implications of "cult."

Advocates of total church-state separation are currently muttering a collective "I told you so!"

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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