Church of England facing 'major constitutional crisis'

After the surprising failure of the Church of England’s legislative assembly to ratify plans to allow women bishops, senior clerics worry England's state church could face government intervention.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
A stained glass window depicts the resurrection of Christ Jesus, holding the flag of St George, attended by women to his right at Rochester Cathedral in Rochester, southeast England, Nov. 21. The Archbishop of Canterbury accused his Church of England of being willfully blind to the attitudes of modern British society on Nov. 21 after it voted 'no' to women bishops, a triumph for its traditionalist minority.

Bitter divisions over the issue of gay marriage have long been considered the greatest potential threat to the unity of the Church of England, officially the country's state church and one with a role in lawmaking. 

Until now.

A week after the surprise failure of the church’s legislative assembly to ratify plans to allow women bishops – an issue that was widely expected to have been the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury’s parting achievement – the mother church of the worldwide Anglican community is facing what an internal memo for senior clerics described as a “major constitutional crisis.”

That warning by the secretary general of the church’s General Synod, went on to say that the church must begin consecrating women bishops and endorsing them in 2015, when the synod has another opportunity to vote, or risk England’s Parliament taking the issue out of its hands, reported The Times newspaper. 

If Parliament took over the issue, it would mark the first such intervention in the affairs of a divided church since 1874, when an act introduced by the Archbishop of Canterbury forbade certain practices undertaken at the time by Anglo-Catholic ritualists.

The results on that occasion were far from happy: Five priests went to prison before prosecutions were ended in 1906, notes Robert Morris, author of “Church and State in 21st Century Britain: The Future of Church Establishment.”

Though even the talk of an intervention is historic, “Parliament is not going to legislate unless there is agreement within the church. And it would be most reluctant to do so,” says Mr. Morris. It raises the question of the church-state relationship, but Morris says that although the idea of separating church and state has come up in the past, it’s an unlikely option.

“The fact remains that the government finds it very convenient to have a national church like this which delivers a sort of national spiritual service for 85 percent of the population [of England].” 

“It’s also a useful cover for dealing with other religions because you don’t have to set up a sort of ministry of cults like you do in France. It’s a proxy for that kind of arrangement,” he says.

Another MP critical of the synod outcome agrees that the government would be “most reluctant” to override the church’s decision.

“My feeling is that there will be, instead, renewed pressure from every source, and certainly behind the scenes,” said the Labor MP, David Winnick, who likened the failure to allow for women bishops to the denial of voting rights to women 100 years ago.

Pointing out that the prime minister plays a role in the appointment of new bishops, he adds: “The prime minister, if he so wishes, can apply pressure, even if it does not become known, along with the parliament pressure shown in the exchanges last week.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his "sadness" that the proposals were rejected, but has, for now, appeared to rule out intervention. Parliament had to "respect the individual institutions and the way they work," he said, although this may change.

Bishops and clergy both backed the proposals, but the move fell just four votes short of the required two-thirds majority among the synod’s more conservative lay members.

Chris Bryant, a Labor MP and former Anglican vicar, told the BBC that the House of Commons should perhaps introduce a parliamentary bill that was “straightforward and clear,” but which would still have to go to the synod.

He also suggested another option:

“Maybe there should be no more bishops coming into the House of Lords until women bishops can join. It’s bizarre that they can’t legislate for themselves and yet they legislate for the rest of the country,” he says.

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