Should the Church of England have a party line?

I am often asked as a Christian, why there is so much disagreement in the Church of England, and why we can’t just make its mind up about where we stand on issues and what we believe. After all, we worship the same God, read the same Bible, so ought we not to agree?

Some people ask me, why has the Anglican Church spent so long trying to decide whether or not it should ordain women as bishops?  Can’t we be more like the  Roman Catholic Church, and just take a clear stand on things, under the pronouncements of the Pope?

The Catholic Church, it seems to me, has a very clear stance on many issues. Clergy should not marry and should remain celibate. Only men can be ordained priests, since this is the church tradition. Contraception shouldn’t be used (I’m not sure actually whether this Catholic stance is changing). People know where they stand as a Roman Catholic. They might not agree with the judgements of their church leaders. They might feel called to be ordained as priests, but find an obstacle in their being a woman or married, but at least they know what their church teaches and they obey it. They know the party line, and it is in accordance with church tradition and the traditional reading of Scripture, even if it frustrates the modern liberal.

However, to me it seems a bit too much like a dictatorship. A person (or group of people) makes the rules and others follow. Historically this has at times got out of hand (Pope. But there have been times when I have asked myself, should the Church of England have a Pope? Should the Church of England be a dictatorship, even?*
My answer is an emphatic no. For protestants, it is the Bible that should be our supreme authority, not the leaders of the Church. Unfortunately, of course, this means that we will always argue as Christians about how to interpret the Bible today. It is conveniently easy for all of us to want to argue the Bible into saying what we want, and can be scarily easy to convince others that this is the truth. But we have to recognise that there are genuine, faithful, Christians who will disagree on what the Bible says.

So we are left in the Church of England with a glorious democracy (heavy sarcasm) where it has taken 20 years between the decision to ordain women as priests and the final deliberations about whether to ordain women as bishops. Today significant events take place for the Church of England, as the general synod finally shows signs of the slow moving democratic wheels coming to a conclusion. So why so long?

However, for me, slow progress is a necessary price for making provision within the Anglican church for differing views. When asked why there is division in the church, my instinctive response is to say, would you expect the Labour and Conservative party to agree so readily, even though both parties would claim to be rational and democratic? Equally, the church encompasses a diverse range of beliefs. Some believe that women should not be allowed to preach to men, or have authority over them (a legitimate interpretation of 1 Tim 2; “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”)and so oppose women being bishops. Others believe that women played important roles as leaders in the New Testament church (such as Priscilla in Acts 18:19; Romans 16:3), and so argue that ordaining women as bishops should be accepted today.

We should not be afraid of differences of theology and conscience in the Church of England. What we should be afraid of, and what I am vehemently opposed to, are those who interpret the Bible in one particular fashion to fit with their agenda (ie. women bishops should be ordained) and insist on imposing it on others. Or else they insist that because the majority have democratically voted in favour all others must conform their theology to fit. So it is with sadness that I read in today’s Independent (Can The Church finally accept women bishops) that it seems that some are wanting to reject the Women Bishop’s bill on grounds that it permits those who cannot in good conscience serve under a women bishop from having an alternative male one.

In good “democratic” fashion, this is all done by playing the discrimination card (your beliefs are discriminating against my “rights”, so I will not allow you to be in the same church as me any more). But if the Church of England starts imposing a party-line (ie. insisting all vicars must accept women bishops, and serve under them) then what unites us as members of the church? Not the historic creeds, not saving faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but whether I think women bishops are biblical. I think faithful Christians can argue either way on the subject, and as such neither side should be forced out of the church for refusing to do what they cannot in good conscience do.

That is why, ultimately, I like the fact that Christians in the Church of England can disagree on issues such as whether women should be bishops, without having to leave to join the Roman Catholic church (I couldn’t personally do this – I’m too protestant!) or set up independent churches. I see it as good that the Church of England for the present can exist as a body of faithful Christians without having too much of a  party-line that all must follow.

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*This was to be the original title of my post, but though it is catchy, it seemed a bit too unfair on the Roman Catholic church to call it a dictatorship! I suppose I want to say that the Catholic church has more of a weight of authority and the tradition of its Popes and councils when pronouncing directly on issues.