December 10, 2012

Thomas à Becket, We Have Need of Thee

Effigy of St. Thomas of Canterbury (Photo Credit: The Times)

Effigy of St. Thomas of Canterbury (Photo Credit: The Times)

The initial outrage and fallout from the Church of England’s decision to reject women bishops seems to have reached its close. Newspapers on the right and the left shrieked in disdain at such a backwards institution for not toeing the feminist line. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Archbishop-to-be Justin Welby, and orthodox heavyweight N. T. Wright (who audaciously quoted C. S. Lewis in favor of a position that the Anglican layman explicitly opposed) all voiced support for female episcopal leaders. Official spokespeople for the successful minority opposition generally cited concerns over compromises and relief of conscience rather than theology when they interacted with the press. The radical Canon Giles Fraser vitiated his own brethren as “modern-day puritans…life-denying fun-sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex.” These hurtful accusations have received a stiff censure from the American Anglican Council. In short, quarts of ink and thousands of digital information bits have been spilled over the matter. Despite the accusations of irrelevance, the mother church of the world’s third largest Christian communion is still nothing to be sneezed at by concerned believers, regardless of denominational stripe.

In the shadows, however, the traditionalists breathed a quiet sigh of relief. On the practical side, ecumenical relations with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and growing conservative Protestant traditions would have been strained. However, the reasons for negative votes depended upon theological and party commitments. For the Anglican sphere, the conservative evangelical concern was deontological; the high church was metaphysical. Low churchmen opposed the measures because they thought the Bible commands them to—that it forbids women in positions of church authority over men. They worried that the hermeneutical gymnastics required to sidestep St. Paul’s ordination standards in the epistles would simply be unsustainable when applied to the rest of Scripture. Soon, cultural historicism would give way to the full agenda of theological liberalism. High churchmen—especially the Anglo-Catholics—chafed at the innovations thanks to their sacramental theology. For them (like Roman Catholics), women bishops—and, by extension, priests—are impossible by definition. The pro-female ordination arguments strike the High Church faction as Gnostic—that the immaterial (spirit, intention, desire) is more important than physical and that the limits of human nature can be overcome or ignored. Whether these hangups have merit is debatable–few seem willing to debate on the basis of theological inquiry. Instead, these views are shuffled away from view for the sake of cultural relevance.

Nevertheless, orthodox Anglicans of all stripes got concerned with the “keep up with the progressive culture” language that was used to berate delegates. As Forward in Faith’s Bishop Keith Ackerman stated on Issues, Etc., “It is not the culture that converts the Church. It is the Church that converts the culture.” Soon, state-church critics at such sources as First Things and Real Clear Religion pounced on an opportunity to validate the American Way of non-established churches. There is much to discuss here; each model of church-state relations seems to have significant tradeoffs. After all, the two realms have interacted with each other from the very foundation of the Church; ecclesiastical officials have been highly intertwined with those of the state at least since the days of Constantine (if not before). Magisterial Protestantism had been founded as a way to stifle heresy; the intimate ties of the Roman Catholic Church with other countries functioned in much the same way. America’s dissenter Protestant heritage holds both opportunities (which are quite obvious in this situation) as well as drawbacks. For instance, the plethora of churches militates against most kinds of catholicity. Church discipline from nearly any congregation seems moot—one can simply walk down the street to a different denominations church if his membership is revoked or his is forbidden from Communion.

So, what to say about English Anglicans now in their current situation—within a state church facing strong social criticism? It seems even a majority of the Church of England’s members wanted women bishops. However, they did not get their way. Prohibition against women bishops remains official church policy. How much good will severe criticism be? Obviously, the votes indicate there are many unhappy people within the English Church. How should they react?

A similar situation has happened before—with a St. Thomas of Canterbury. People often forget one of the reasons why this popular saint fell out of favor with the king’s court: St. Thomas refused to send clergy to secular courts for trial. Instead, clergy were sent to ecclesiastical courts to be tried according to canon law. This was part of the Church’s attempt to expand the archbishopric again. Thomas—generally considered a longtime ally of the king—essentially threw away his friendship with the monarch to save what may have been several unsavory clerical characters from secular trial. I doubt he was very happy about this position, but he put loyalty to his Church above social acceptability.

Thomas’ continual favor of the Church against the kingly powers eventually cost him his life. We celebrate him as a hero today, not necessarily because we agreed with his own policies (I for one favor sending clergy to secular courts for secular crimes) but for his unwavering stand by the Church and her teaching. So, today, when the Church stands against the state’s desires and society’s expectations, we should see English Christians continuing in this tradition, right? Isn’t it time for solidarity amongst the faithful? This should be something that members of the Church of England have to face up to (regardless of position) and instead shield their dissenting brethren from cultural outrage, right?

Wrong.

Instead, we have vitriol against those who dared oppose the cultural consensus and the “inevitable” egalitarian future. The world now watches its favorite sport: Christians hurting Christians out of malice. If such a stance against episcopal innovation is a crime against all female-kind, then the Church has been a woman’s greatest enemy for nearly 2,000 years [spoiler: it has not]. Now’s not the time to throw stones against fellow Christians. There has been a severe lack of theological rationale (especially on the progressivist side), and the condemnation of traditionalists destroys opportunities for helpful dialogue. I humbly submit that now is the time to be unpopular; now is the time for a Thomas à Becket.

You can find Bart Gingerich, Research Assistant, on Twitter at @bjgingerich.