Women Bishops in the Church of England: It’s a Little Late to Stop Them

The fuss surrounding the "Manchester Report" on how to achieve women bishops in the Church of England overlooks a significant weakness in the argument against them: who really is the head of the Church of England?

Everybody knows the answer to that question (well, almost:) the Queen, who is the "Lady and Governor" of the church.  It gets worse; the first Queen Elizabeth was the one who oversaw the "Elizabethan Settlement" which gave Anglican Christianity its essential shape.

Now, you say, the Queen isn’t a bishop or cleric.  Well, that doesn’t really matter.  Headship is headship.  The monarch has always been involved in the life of the Church of England, very actively in its early years.  If the Queen is Rowan Williams’ superior (a thankless job, to say the least) then he is subordinate to her, and so it is with every bishop, priest, deacon and communicant in the Church of England.  And the headship objection is the centre of the Evangelicals’ opposition to women bishops.

Let’s take this a step further, and consider the royal Declaration concerning the Articles of Religion, as contained in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:

BEING by God’s Ordinance, according to Our just Title, Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governor of the Church, within these Our Dominions, We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office, and Our own religious Zeal, to conserve and maintain the Church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion, and in the Bond of Peace; and not to suffer unnecessary Disputations, Altercations, or Questions to be raised, which may nourish Faction both in the Church and Commonwealth. We have therefore, upon the mature Deliberation, and with the Advice of so many of Our Bishops as might conveniently be called together, thought fit to make this Declaration following:

That the Articles of the Church of England which have been allowed and authorized theretofore, and which Our Clergy generally have subscribed unto) do contain the true Doctrine of the Church of England agreeable to God’s Word: which We do therefore ratify and confirm, requiring all Our loving Subjects to continue in the uniform Profession thereof, and prohibiting the least difference from the said Articles; which to that End We command to be new printed, and this Our Declaration to be published therewith.

That We are Supreme Governor of the Church of England: And that if any difference arise about the external Policy, concerning the Injunctions, Canons, and other Constitutions whatsoever thereto belonging, the Clergy in their Convocation is to order and settle them, having first obtained leave under Our Broad Seal so to do: and We approving their said Ordinances and Constitutions; providing that none be made contrary to the Laws and Customs of the Land.

It’s strange that this, promulgated in 1562, was done under "Good Queen Bess," yet in the masculine gender!  Evidently they didn’t like the obvious then either!  The Articles were promulgated under the monarch’s "Broad Seal," which meant by her authority.

All of this, of course, doesn’t address the Anglo-Catholics’ objection of the priest as a representative of God, but that assumes that the whole Catholic concept of the priesthood has the sanction of the New Testament, which it doesn’t.

It’s time for the Church of England to face the obvious.  Perhaps the Queen ought to appoint a woman bishop or two and call some peoples’ bluff. The only way out of this is disestablishment, and that’s being kicked around these days too.  But this is another one of Anglicanism’s interesting incongruities, one more to wrestle with among so many others.

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