The first female bishop is the Anglican’s AV referendum. The second may cause further issues

Having only just appointed the first, the CofE have now appointed a second female bishop. The Guardian report Rev Canon Alison White will accept a bishopric in the see of Hull. The announcement comes shortly after the first female bishop, Rev Libby Lane, was appointed as bishop of Stockport. Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, called it a “joyous day” and hailed the move as “fantastic”.

Rt Rev Lane has already come under fire from some liberal quarters for not being quite liberal enough. Given that Conservative Evangelicals and High Church traditionalists were never going to wear the appointment, regardless of the theological inclinations of the appointee, it seems an ill-conceived move to appoint a woman who wasn’t a thoroughgoing liberal. 

The group for whom this appointment was most welcome, and long overdue, is the more liberal wing of the church. To then appoint a mildly conservative, or even middle-of-the-road, candidate has caused the most receptive group to have their noses put out of joint because the appointment is not sufficiently liberal for them. This seems to be an exercise in shooting one’s church body in the foot. Nobody, neither opponent nor proponent, got what they were seeking. This is the CofE’s very own AV referendum; an attempt at progress which neither liberals nor conservatives actually want. As attempts at politically progressive acts that seek to uphold some semblance of unity go, this seems to be a total dog’s breakfast.

No doubt, once again, we will be entreated to the next round of Conservative Evangelical hand-wringing. The lines will be drawn (“here I stand…” and all that), they will once again be breached, new lines will be drawn (“Here we really stand…”) and they will be pushed. Inevitably, the current protection for Evangelical complementarians to reject the headship of a female bishop will be the next battleground.

In years past, I had little sympathy for Evangelicals that wished to remain within the bounds of the Anglican communion. My feeling was that the issue was quite simple: the church had departed from the gospel and the Evangelicals could either choose to remain in fellowship with non-gospel churches or remove themselves and join with like-minded gospel churches. In many respects, that choice remains the same.

However, the matter is wildly more complicated now. In the past, Evangelicals could have left over the denigration of the gospel. Having chosen not to do that, many are now faced with leaving over important, but secondary, external matters such as complementarianism and gay marriage. What the world would have seen as an exodus over gospel issues – a watering down of theology and an inability to have meaningful fellowship with churches that eschew basic gospel truth – will now simply be seen as a hissy fit by misogynists and homophobes who couldn’t get their own way. Cries of “but this is a gospel issue” will be lost on those who see only years of increasingly errant doctrine, denounced as dreadful at the time but nonetheless tolerated to the point of remaining in fellowship, while the inclusion of women and homosexuals is the prima facie cause of schism.

Whilst we in the Free Churches may look on and wonder why such lines were not drawn decades ago, the CofE is where it is. The question has now become eminently more complex. Do Evangelicals remain in a church broader than the Norfolk waterways and risk increasing compromise or do they leave for the sanctuary of independency and risk a misconstruction of the basic issues? 

I have to say it is not a choice I envy. But one feels the “it’s a gospel issue” boat sailed some while ago. One way or the other, there are choppy waters ahead.

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