The Church of England, the “mother church” of the Anglican communion that is estimated to have 77 million followers worldwide, stands on the threshold of a more inclusive and equitable era. Its General Synod vote in favour of ordaining women as bishops in the next several years (as regulated by a code of practice) is certainly a move whose time has come. With the traditionalist supporters of male-only priesthood livid over the decision, the church faces the threat of a schism. But then a similar storm broke out in 1992 when a decision was made to ordain women as priests and the church faced the challenge quite successfully. The move will create fresh tensions between the Anglicans and the Roman Catholic church, which is dead set against the ordination of women even as priests. On the other hand, the step may have a positive resonance among some other churches under the communion, including those in India. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, now has a most delicate task on his hands. The decadal Lambeth Conference, which opens today, will set the course for the church in a time of multiple crises. The task of Dr. Williams as primus inter pares among the bishops of the worldwide Anglican communion is complicated by the highly divisive row that has broken out between liberals and conservatives within the church over homosexuality — after the Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the United States, consecrated a gay Bishop.
Christianity is by no means the only religion whose age-old tradition is to bar women from the priesthood. But progressive Christians consider it a great paradox that while their religion proclaims a gospel of equality, a large part of the church categorises a section of its members as unfit for ordination. Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie famously said a few decades ago: “It cannot be irrelevant to evangelism that so many unbelievers think that the place we give to women is absurd.” The perception of absurdity has only grown over time as women have broken through the barriers and made a mark in several fields from which tradition excluded them. There may be varying theological interpretations of whether the ordination of women would go against the church’s fundamental tenets of faith, and even whether the fact of Jesus’s 12 apostles being men held any prescriptive weight. But by not bringing the barriers down, the church risks giving the impression that it believes only men can ‘represent’ god, at least at the senior levels. Archbishop Williams is understandably anxious about keeping his congregation together but he should take a progressive lead on this critical issue and shed all equivocation.