Should a Woman Lead the Church?

That’s a question that’s as old as Anglicanism itself, as Bossuet pointed out a long time ago in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, VII, 45-47:

Accordingly, it thence came to pass, that Henry VIII gave
the bishops power to visit their diocese with this preface: “That all jurisdiction, as well ecclesiastical as secular, proceeded from the regal power, as from the first foundation of all magistracy in all kingdoms ; that those who, till then, had exercised this power precariously, were to acknowledge it as coming from the liberality of the prince, ami give it up to him when he should think fit; and upon these grounds he gives power to such a bishop, as to the King’s vicar, to visit his diocese by the regal authority; and to promote whom he shall judge proper to holy orders, and even priesthood; and, in short, to exercise all the episcopal functions, with power to subdelegate if he thought it necessary.

Cranmer acts conformably to this dogma,—the only one
wherein the Reformation has not varied. Let us say nothing against a doctrine which destroys itself by its own enormity, and only take notice of that horrid proposition which makes the power of bishops so to flow from that of the King, that it is even revocable at his will. Cranmer was so persuaded of this royal power, that he was not ashamed, himself archbishop of Canterbury, and primate of the whole Church of England, to take out a new commission of the same from under Edward VI, though but a child, when he reformed the Church according to his own model: and of all the articles published by Henry, this was the only one he retained.

This power was carried to such a pitch in the English Reformation, that Elizabeth had some scruples about it ; and the horror men had of seeing a woman the Church’s supreme head, and the fountain of all pastoral power, whereof, by her sex, she was incapable, opened their eyes at length to see, in some measure, the excesses to which they had been carried. But we shall see, without diminishing the force, or removing the grounds of it, they did no more than just palliate the matter ; nor can Mr. Burnet, at this day, but lament to see excommunication, belonging only to the spiritual cognisance, and which ought to have been reserved for the bishop with the assistance of the clergy, by a fatal neglect given over to secular tribunals; that is, not only to Kings, but likewise to their officers;—”an error (proceeds this author) grown since into so formed a strength, that it is easier to see what is amiss, than to know how to rectify it.”

There are really two questions here, and I’ve discussed both of them in the past on this blog.  The first–and the one which Bossuet emphasises the most–is whether the secular monarch can be the head of the church, with all the powers that go with it.  Any reasonable reading of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer will show that the Church of England exists because the sovereign allows it to under his (or her) “broad seal” and that the sovereign is the “Lord and Governor” (or “Lady and Governor”) of the Church.  And, as Bossuet goes on to point out (48):

And, certainly, I do not conceive any thing can be imagined more contradictory, than to deny their Kings, on one side, the administration of the word and sacraments ; and grant them, on the other, excommunication, which, in reality, is nothing else but God’s word armed with the censure which comes from Heaven, and one of the most essential parts of the administration of the sacraments ; since, undoubtedly, the right of depriving the faithful of them can appertain to none else but those who are appointed by God to give them to the people. But the Church of England went much further, inasmuch as she has attributed to her King’s and to the secular authority, the right of making rituals and liturgies, and even of giving final judgment without further appeal, in points of faith ; that is, of that which is most essential in the administration of the sacraments ; and the most inseparably annexed to the preaching of God’s word. And as well under Henry VIII. as in the succeeding reigns, we find no ritual, no confession of faith, no liturgy, which derives not their ultimate sanction and force from the authority of the King and parliament, as the sequel will make plain. They went even to that excess, that, whereas the orthodox emperors, if formerly they made any Constitutions concerning faith, either they made them in order to put in execution Church decrees, or at least waited for the confirmation of their ordinances. In England they taught, on the contrary, “that the decrees of councils, in points of faith, were not laws, nor of any force, till they were ratified by princes;” and this was the fine idea which Cranmer gave of Church decisions in a discourse of his reported by Mr. Burnet.

This may seem a controversy of another era; however, as I have pointed out, if so motivated Parliament (now holding the sovereign’s power) could impose such things as women bishops (the idea was seriously floated during the debate) and same-sex civil marriage upon the Church of England.  That’s certainly relevant in the recent call by the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is NOT the head of the Church of England) for the Anglican Communion to come to a modus vivendi in January.  How orthodox Anglicans can expect the Church of England to stay a stable anchor for the Communion with this hanging over their head (to say nothing of the internal silliness that’s always out there) is beyond me.

Turning to women’s headship, Bossuet’s point that it took Elizabeth’s accession as the “Lady and Governor” of the church to wake up people to the reality of the monarch’s place is as amusing as it is probably true.  But it was all foreseeable: once you placed the monarch at the head of the church and allowed same to be a woman (the French did not do either) then what happened with Elizabeth was inevitable.  And it seriously weakens any argument against women being either ministers or bishops in an Anglican church.

The English Reformation is without a doubt the messiest chapter in that part of European history, and these issues are at the heart of that messiness.

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