At question time in the House of Commons today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about yesterday’s decision by the General Synod of the Church of England to reject women bishops. According to the Guardian,
Cameron said he was “very sad” about the result. “On a personal basis I’m a strong supporter of women bishops. I’m very sad about the way the vote went yesterday …. I think it’s important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society as it is today and this was a key step it needed to take.”
Cameron indicated that the government would respect the Church’s self-governing status — although established by law, the Church legislates for itself through the General Synod — while giving the Church “a sharp prod.” It’s not clear what the prod will be. Some MPs are threatening to end the Church’s representation in the House of Lords; others, to remove the Church’s exemption from anti-discrimination laws. Anyway, Cameron made clear, the Church would somehow have to “get with the programme” and reverse yesterday’s decision.
Please note that the Prime Minister’s objections, and the objections of the other MPs, are entirely political. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s simply a fact. In essence, what the Prime Minister is saying is this: The Church’s decision is inconsistent with the deepest values of contemporary English society; therefore, the decision is illegitimate. Now, no doubt, the Prime Minister thinks it is morally wrong and un-Christian to refuse to ordain women as bishops, and many people agree with him. But his main point, at least as expressed in Parliament, is that the Church must change to keep up with modern society. As a public institution, the Church has a responsibility to reflect public values.
Public values are not in principle the binding authority for Christian churches, however. Whether women may become bishops — or priests, for that matter — is a complex theological question on which Christian churches disagree. To resolve the question in an intellectually honest way, you’d have to spend a lot of time considering scripture and tradition. And you’d have to be open to the possibility that scripture and tradition point to an answer that contradicts public opinion, in which case, you’d have to conform to scripture and tradition, not public opinion. It wouldn’t be the first time Christians found themselves at odds with the wider society, after all. But, anyway, I’m not arguing here about women bishops. My point is only that the values of the wider society cannot, for Christians, be the determinative factor.
And here we come to a central problem of establishments. Inevitably, public values do become the determinative factor. Public institutions cannot contradict public opinion for long. What will the outcome be in this case? I don’t know enough about English society to make a confident prediction, but two possibilities suggest themselves. First, the General Synod will get the message and reverse course in the near future. The supporters of women bishops were only six votes short of a supermajority, which is awfully close. Perhaps next time the vote will be different. Alternatively, the opponents of women bishops, who come disproportionately from the laity — an observation that requires a post of its own — will hold on, and the Church will move, slowly, toward disestablishment. I can’t imagine Parliament will remain patient for long with a public institution out of step with public values.