Sarah Coakley on Women Bishops

Sarah Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, has written an insightful theological critique of the measure that went down to defeat this week. She contends that the vote against women bishops was a vote for theological incoherency. She made the argument to the House of Bishops earlier this year. It consisted of three main points:

  • we cannot compromise on the historic theology of the bishop as locus of unity;
  • we must return afresh to our distinctively Anglican notions of reason and tradition to solve this crisis, not lapse into rational incoherence; and
  • we must resist in the Church the supervenience of bureaucratic thinking (with all its busy political pragmatism) over theological and spiritual seriousness.

So what we have created in the past twenty years is a theological anomaly which has insidiously been made to seem normal: a whole cadre of priests – a third of our priesthood now – who are supposedly intrinsically disabled from exercising the charisms of spiritual unity and authority historically associated with the episcopate. It is here that the main theological scandal still lies: the implicit creation and normalization of second-class priesthood. The terrible danger is that this may now be extended into second-class episcopacy.

She appeals to Hooker:

First, the status and place of reason in the Anglican hierarchy of theological criteria acts, or should act, as a point of resistance to any forms of theological compromise which are actually contradictory: p and not-p simply cannot co-exist in such a framework. Thus, one cannot simultaneously hold what might be seen as a Donatist theology of taint in relation to women priests or bishops, and an Augustinian theology of objectively valid sacramental orders, and hope to maintain a coherent theology of the church. When provisions are made for those who disagree within the Church, then, it cannot be on the basis of such an actual internal contradiction – or else our beloved Church of England will indeed have finally lost her reason.

On the other hand, and secondly, however, Hooker’s perspective does indeed allow for novelties in the rational reception of Bible and tradition: the plastic nature of Hooker’s conception of reason, and its deep understanding of historical embeddedness, does allow for creative development in response to the primacy of Scriptural authority and the deposit of tradition, without the danger of a merely historical or moral relativism. There is nothing in Hooker, then, that would give credence to the slogan that “nothing new is ever true.” But there is everything to suggest the possibility of hopes for future creativity and renewal.

Her points about “theological incoherence” and the “supervenience of bureaucratic thinking over theological and spiritual seriousness” should be considered by the Episcopal Church as we deal with divisive issues as well. Where have we allowed compromise to get in the way of serious and difficult theological work.

Institutional Failure: The Church’s internal struggles and growing irrelevancy

Yesterday, there was the shocking news that the measure to allow women bishops in the Church of England went down to defeat. Last week came the next step in the dissolution of the Episcopal Church as we’ve known it with the secession of the Diocese of South Carolina.

Outside of Anglicanism, also last week the American Roman Catholic bishops met. They were licking their wounds after a resounding defeat at the ballot box. Having put financial resources and considerable pressure, their efforts to prevent the passage of same-sex marriage failed in four states. The presidential candidate favored by most was defeated, apparently by a majority of their flock. They met with a convicted felon in their midst but no mention was made of his presence or the systemic problem underlying his conviction.

The Protestant religious right, too, is now trying to figure out what went wrong, what God is telling them, and how to move forward. Fortunately, Franklin Graham provides insight for all of us, as he speculates that God intends a total economic collapse in the US in order for us to repent and amend our ways.

Many of us who are passionate about our faith, passionate about the Good News of Jesus Christ, and about building up the Body of Christ, are also deeply committed to and passionate about the institutional church. It has nurtured and shaped us. It is one of the means through which we experience God and the love of Jesus Christ. But the institutional church, like every human institution, is deeply flawed, oppressive as well as life-giving. It can diminish us as human beings as well as enable our flourishing.

It’s pretty clear by now that many (all?) of our institutions are in crisis. Our political system is broken; our economy falters; higher education, the military, you name it. The structures of the Church, the institution of the Church is not only meant to be the means through which we come to know and love God through Jesus Christ but it is also the Body of Christ. It makes Christ present to the world and unites us to Christ’s body throughout history and across the world.

There have been times throughout history when it is very difficult to see how the institutional church incarnates the body of Christ. This may be one of those times, a period when because of human fallibility and social upheaval the institutions of the churches no longer bear witness to the fullness of Christ but have fallen prey to narrow human interest. At such times, prophets and reformers have risen up to breathe new life into old institutions or to create new ways through which God can break in upon us. It may also be that in local settings, in new media and new ways that people come together, we are already seeing hints of the new creation that God is calling into being.

In the meantime, we have to wait patiently, mourn the ways in which the churches and we ourselves fall short of God’s call, and continue to seek God’s will in the present and future. The danger is that our local efforts are ignored while institutional credibility and relevance collapse on the national and global level.

Back to women bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken publicly on the measure’s defeat. Thinking Anglicans provides full coverage of that as well as a press round up and reactions from various interest groups.

Reactions are beginning to come in. From Andrew Brown on Guardian: “I think I have just watched the Church of England commit suicide. It was a very long and very boring process.”

A view from Scotland (Kelvin Holdsworth):

Looking on at the passion of the Church of England from outside, one finds oneself trying hard to substitute compassion for pity.

There are many fine women priests and the cause for treating them equally in Canon Law is an easy one to make but one which has not been made often enough. Those female clergy deserved better than this measure. The whole church deserved better than this and now has the chance to try to find its way towards it.

The Church of England gets its chance to prove that it worships at something other than the altar of compromise.

No women bishops for Church of England today

The Church of England’s General Synod failed to approve the motion to permit women bishops. The measure passed overwhelmingly in the houses of Bishops and Clergy; failed to achieve the required 2/3 majority in the house of laity.
I’m sure there will be a great deal about this in the coming hours and days. I’ll try to post some of the most compelling comments.