THE BLOG
07/16/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

3 Reasons the Church of England Decision Is Right on Time

On Monday, the Church of England voted to ordain women as bishops of the Church after years of debate and division.

And almost immediately, commentators began to complain.

The complaints generally came in one of two forms. From the conservative side, this vote represents a tragic capitulation to culture and sacrifice of biblical principles, leading inevitably to eventual ordination of open LGBT people. From the progressive side, this vote is decades too late, proving just how behind the times the church really is -- because obviously they still don't ordain LGBT people! In other words, it's either way too late or waaaaay too early, as in, never should have happened!

Al Mohler, complaining as a conservative, elaborated further about the dynamic this creates for (conservative) evangelical Anglicans:

This is the kind of "compromise" that pervades mainline liberal Protestantism. It shifts the church decisively to the left and calls for mutual respect. Conservatives are to be kindly shown the door. Ruth Gledhill of The Guardian [London], one of the most insightful observers of religion in Great Britain, recognized the plight of the evangelicals, though she celebrated the vote: "In the last 69 episcopal appointments, there have been evangelicals but not a single conservative one." In this context, "conservative" means more concerned with doctrinal matters and opposed to a change in the church's teachings on gender and human sexuality. But, as Gledhill recognized, "This wing of the church is where so much of the energy is, giving rise not just to growth, but also that necessary resource, cash."

Yes, there is another pattern to recognize -- evangelicals have the growth and the cash, just not the votes. The talk about mutual flourishing is really an argument to remain in the church and keep paying the bills.

There are obviously internal politics going on here that I don't pretend to fully understand, but I think these complainers are missing something in their polarized political perspectives. Namely, that despite internal issues the Spirit may be leading this large, international church body in such a way that it is right on time. In both mechanism and precedent, this could in fact be a work of God in our days that we ought to be astonished at, not complain about.

Here are 3 reasons I think this decision is right on time: 

1. The ecclesial discernment process should be painstaking, spiritual, and biblical. Mohler is right about at least one thing - changing just to "get with the times" or be culturally respectable is a mistake the church has often made, leading to the sacrifice of its essential identity. And yet to refuse the voice of culture (or, in Wesleyan terms, the voice of Reason) as the spiritual and biblical discernment process is underway is likewise a tragic mistake. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said it perfectly:

It is good news for women, who are at last assured in more than words alone that their baptismal relationship with Jesus Christ is not different from or inferior to that of men as regards their fitness for  public ministry exercised in Christ's name and power.  It is good news for men, who may now receive more freely the spiritual gifts God gives to women because women are recognised among those who can at every level animate and inspire the Church in their presidency at worship - and so it is good news for the whole Church, in the liberating of fresh gifts for all.  It is good news for the world we live in, which needs the unequivocal affirmation of a dignity given equally to all by God in creation and redemption - and can now, we hope, see more clearly that the Church is not speaking a language completely remote from its own most generous and just instincts.

The spiritual, biblical, and theological reasoning is strong -- the cultural voice is necessary.

2. Faithfulness entails both progress and sacrifice.  Mohler's complaint to the tune that the evangelical contingent in the Church of England is the most vital and profitable and therefore deserves deference misses what real faithfulness is all about. And the progressive complaint that this is too little too late misses it too. Faithfulness involves both progress and sacrifice, at different times and in different ways, in dynamic interaction with one another. It involves progress that confronts entrenched and errant theology, as N.T. Wright argued when this vote failed to pass a couple years ago:

The other lie to nail is that people who "believe in the Bible" or who "take it literally" will oppose women's ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

Yet it involves sacrifice when the Church discerns something either way. That's another way of saying that faithfulness entails unity. Yes, there are some issues that justify division, but those issues, again, must be painstakingly discerned. In Wright's very biblical words, "We must bear with one another."

Yes, Al Mohler, that means the revitalizing conservative evangelicals, too.

3. Jesus is at work to establish his kingdom, by the Spirit, through the Church universal -- and this looks like that. The Anglican Communion is a large, international, and influential episcopal body. This decision toward kingdom equality is, I believe, a part of the work of the resurrected Jesus to establish his reign on earth as it is in heaven. If our ecclesiology is too low, we might scoff at a lack of progress. We might compare this with liberation happening in other corners of the Church and deem it lame. But if our hearts are oriented toward the totality of God's liberating work, then we will see in this not just the political dimensions but the beautiful and lasting effects for the Church universal.

We will see, in Williams's words, that this is "good news for the whole Church, in the liberating of fresh gifts for all."

This post first appeared on The Nuance at Patheos.