The First Female Bishops – Moving Mountains

As of 26th January 2015, the first female Bishop in the Anglican Church was ordained. Elizabeth Jane Holden “Libby” Lane was made the bishop of Stockport, the ‘second-in-command’ of the Metropolitan Bishop of Chester. While the Anglican Church is not the first church in the world to ordain a female bishop, that one of the more ‘Catholic’ Protestant churches had embraced this idea was still a massive step forward.

However, it is evident that this decision has still rocked certain sections of the Church. This was seen recently with the appointment of Rev Anne Dyer to the post of Bishop for Aberdeen and Orkney. The backlash was so extreme that it led to such descriptions of her appointment as ‘divisive and disrespectful’. This was also partly fuelled by her support of same-sex marriage in what appears to be a very conservative diocese.  

This was still a brilliant step forward in itself. I believe that her appointment will force the area to catch up with times. However, this is not what this article is about. Before Anne Dyer was ‘forced’ on a diocese or Libby Lane was ordained or even before the vote at the General Synod to allow female bishop ordination, there was a fierce resistance to it. And even following it, the backlash has been felt from the layman to the highest Arch-Bishop. Why is there this backlash? And what does this backlash say about the church?

I shall start by describing where this backlash stems from. One might think that the Anglican Church is one, unified church wherein each believes in one doctrine and hold the same beliefs. While this is true on paper, the devil is in the detail (no pun intended). The Anglican Church’s membership could be thought of to be made up of several different strands of thought and persuasion. The main three (in my experience) being ‘Progressives’, ‘Traditionalists’ and ‘Evangelicals’. A brief aside: It is more complicated than this, obviously, but I’m not going make it so for a 750-word article.

So, what are the standings of these strands of thought? Those claiming that the new ruling is controversial are of course the Traditionalists and Evangelicals. The Traditionalists can be seen as being generally against change, as they hold to the belief that the Church’s doctrine should remain with the tradition that is true and tested through time. The Evangelicals argue that female ordination per se goes against what is written in the Bible and the Scriptures. I believe this divergence and anger is then further exaggerated by the fact that the Anglican Church is dwindling. The Church was once a prospering institution, filling Cathedrals to their capacity of 500 – 750 people, and the surrounding Churches almost bursting with the faithful. Religion now doesn’t have the meaning to many people as it used to, so the Church has therefore been in steady decline, with these stunning Cathedrals and Churches getting nowhere near capacity. This has been the scenario for as long as I can remember (having gone to an Anglican Church all my life) with this steady decline seemingly going to continue. The question facing all parts of the Church now is ‘How does the Church stop this decline?’. Each strand has a different answer, further reflected in the discussion of female bishops.

The Progressive strand would argue that the way to bring people back to the Church is bringing the Church into the twenty first century, where female bishops, gay marriage and inclusiveness are the key. The Traditionalists oppose this and believe that it is in fact the progressiveness imposed on them that is killing the Church– the more change that is brought about, the more people it will drive away. And the Evangelicals would argue that we must go back to the Scriptures, that anything defying them would go against God and that salvation lies in following the Scripture. It must not be changed.

So, which one is right? Well, if one looks purely at Church growth around the world, it would in fact be the Evangelicals! The Evangelical churches in the United States, in Africa and in Europe are growing almost exponentially – it seems that to grow your church is to make it solely Evangelical in nature and doctrine. However, I would argue against this. I believe the sole idea that Christianity should be about salvation and that ‘if you don’t follow us, you don’t get into heaven’ is an intolerant view to have, and not what the Church should be about. Indeed, the idea that certain actions you do or don’t do will guarantee a place in heaven or hell is a hypocritical and manipulative doctrine. I fear that this is the way the Church will go. However, it is important to remember that even though there is an Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church, they do not seem to be succeeding in moving the Church in that direction, as can be seen by the recent votes at the General Synod. This therefore drives the controversy within the Church.

A priest recently said to me, ‘God is about transformation and change’ and as society transforms and changes into something open, inclusive and equal, so must the Church. We see the net good that this change does in society for all, and the Church should support this. After all, does that not seem more like God’s work than preaching about salvation and stirring fear? Despite how much you hear about the ‘controversy’ of female bishops or gay marriage or what the Church decides to do next, remember each of these acts is a mountain moving. A roughly five-hundred-year-old institution is changing significantly; it won’t change in a day but it will change no matter how controversial some may say it is.

[David O’Ryan]

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