Sunday, April 25, 2010

Archbishop Rowan Williams and Female Bishops in the Anglican Church

There is a good article in the most recent New Yorker ("A Canterbury Tale," by Jane Kramer, here) examining the debate within the Anglican Church about whether to permit women to be bishops.

Kramer discusses Rowan Williams's efforts to maintain unity between the pro- and anti- camps, and her description of Williams makes him sound like an awesome spiritual leader:
Williams is a fifty-nine-year-old Welshman with a beautiful voice, a full white beard, and fearsome, flyaway black eyebrows that in pictures, or when he is thinking hard, can make him look like a monk out of Dostoyevsky—a resemblance that is said to please him. He wrote a book about Dostoyevsky in 2008. His manner is friendly, more professorial than priestly. He taught theology for most of the nineteen-eighties, at Cambridge and then at Oxford ... His students—some of them now the priests berating him most strongly for his reluctance to put himself, and his office, on the line for a cause he is known to support—call him the most engrossing teacher they ever had. After a few minutes, I believed it. Williams has a disarming mind, a modesty, and an appetite for conversation, a way of thinking out loud, that belies the austerity of his title. At one point, he stopped himself, saying, “Sorry, this is turning into a sermon.”

I love the phrase "fearsome, flyaway black eyebrows" -- and based on the picture I found at Wikipedia, it's absolutely apt.

Williams actually sounds a bit like Obama in terms of recognizing that pushing for change too fast or too hard could be detrimental to his goal (which, I gather, is to enable women to become bishops):
“How do you eat an elephant?” he said, with something between a chuckle and a sigh, when I asked how he hoped to hold his church together, given that the demands of Anglican women were so completely at odds with the demands of Anglican men whose own inclusion specifically involved excluding those women from episcopal service. “I suppose it’s by using as best I can the existing consultative mechanisms to create a climate—and I think that’s often the best, to create a climate,” he told me. “There’s a phrase which has struck me very much: that you can actually ruin a good cause by pushing it at the wrong moment and not allowing the process of discernment and consent to go on, and that’s part of my view.” He thought that with time, patience, and enough discussion within the Church you could temper the opposition to female bishops—despite the fact that three synods since 1994 have tried to address the issue, and the opposition remains intractable.

The article makes the point that those in favor of female bishops cite to the fact that on Easter Jesus first appeared to two women.

Regarding women and Christianity, Maureen Dowd has been writing searing criticisms of the Catholic hierarchy recently, and she argues that if the priests/bishops/pope had listened to (and granted more authority to) women, then the phenomenon of child abuse by priests may not have been as widespread -- and the cover-up less likely. She also thinks the Catholic Church could use a "nope" -- a nun as pope. I am impressed (and somewhat surprised) with how stringently she's taking the Church to task.

Back to Anglicanism: I imagine that there will be female bishops within the next ten years, but I also anticipate that at least some of the dioceses will split off when it happens. Although Kramer writes extensively about the pope's invitation for dissenting Anglicans to join the Catholic Church, I do not think it will play out that way -- I think they will form an alternative Anglican institution.

One question that came to my mind is how many Anglican bishops there are, and I have not found an answer yet. Based on a percentage given in the article, I am guessing around 1,500, but that actually seems like a smaller number than I'd have thought.

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