Female bishops: Big story or not? (updated)

TimesLondonOn one level, it is obvious that the Church of England's decision to raise female priests to the episcopate is a big news story. I mean, click here for a Google News tour of the coverage and here for a regular Google collection. Or, if you wish, here's the New York Times report. There is, in fact, too much coverage to scan and critique in any fair manner. So let's just look at one or two things in the London coverage via The Times. As you would expect, Ruth Gledhill's report has lots of drama and details. Take a look at the top of the story:

The Church of England decided last night to consecrate women bishops, with minimum concessions to opponents and despite the threat of a mass exodus of traditionalist clergy.

After one of the most contentious debates faced by the Church's General Synod, its members voted to allow the consecration of women bishops but rejected compromise proposals for new "super bishops", who would have catered for the objectors. The decisions, after more than six hours of debate, led to extraordinary scenes at the University of York, with one bishop in tears as he spoke of being "ashamed" of the Church of England.

The Rt Rev Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover, who is in favour of women bishops, said that the failure to agree to create "super bishops" meant that every opportunity to allow objectors to "flourish" within the Church had been turned down.

Once again, this is the same kind of church-within-a-church approach that many in North America are seeking as a way to wrestle with other issues, most obviously the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians who oppose the Anglican Communion's current stand on the moral status of sex outside of a traditional definition of marriage. It should be noted that the left's critique is accurate that this "super bishops" concept also requires major changes in centuries of traditions and doctrines. Both sides are proposing major changes, only on issues involving different levels of doctrine and biblical interpretation.

Gledhill also sums up the regional, national and even global implications -- global as in Roman -- of this action.

Catholic and evangelical bishops are also understood to have held secret talks in Rome to discuss how to proceed with unity talks once women are ordained, and what, if any, kind of recognition might be granted to Anglo-Catholics by Rome.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who urged generous provision for opponents, sat with his head in his hands as a proposal for "super bishops" for objectors to women bishops was defeated. The super bishops would have been an upgraded version of the "flying bishops" appointed to care for opponents of women priests.

The synod rejected the plan even though it had the backing of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. Under the new proposals to consecrate women, flying bishops will also disappear and parishes will no longer be able to opt into their care instead of that of their diocesan bishop.

Like I said, the key details are in the story and even more details are hidden in the oceans of digital ink Gledhill -- again, there are other reporters doing the same thing -- are spilling on this story in the form of blog postings. This is part of the entire "summer of schism" theme that is developing online (again and again).

The Telegraph offered this apocalyptic summation in a blog: "It's the end of Anglo-Catholicism." In the actual news story, the headline was just as overwhelming: "Church of England set to split over women bishops."

It's also clear that the Roman Catholic option story is now going to be huge, with reports that about 1,300 priests and bishops are planning to leave the Church of England over the issue of female bishops. Click here for the actual document on that threat.

Meanwhile, the Vatican Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, to no one's surprise, had this to say:

We have regretfully learned of the Church of England vote to pave the way for the introduction of legislation which will lead to the ordaining of women to the Episcopacy. The Catholic position on the issue was clearly expressed by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Such a decision signifies a breaking away from the apostolic tradition maintained by all of the Churches since the first millennium, and therefore is a further obstacle for the reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

This decision will have consequences on the future of dialogue, which had up until now born fruit, as Cardinal Kasper had clearly explained when he spoke on June 5 2006 to all of the bishops of the Church of England at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But I was struck by another quote, far down in the Gledhill weblog, a quote that actually gets at the heart of the various Anglican disputes this summer and, thus, at a theme that should be important to the news coverage itself. This is a clip from the reporter's notes, posted online:

Moving at last to debate the final motion, Alan Hargrave pleaded that none would leave the Church and said that staying in the Church was the 'test of a true Anglican.'

Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover, said: 'I have to say that for the first time in my life I feel ashamed. We have talked for hours about wanting to give an honourable place for those who disagreed. We have turned down almost every opportunity for those opposed to flourish. And we still talk the talk of being inclusive and generous. The Rochester report said in many many pages that there were a variety of ways in which scripture and reason could be read with integrity.'

Pope Rowan gift presentation P3 1 Note the connection of two different realities. On one side, people argue that the ultimate doctrinal test of whether one is an Anglican is whether one elects to stay in the church. Period.

Meanwhile, others argue in official reports that there must be two (or more) different ways to read the relevant scriptures, doctrines and traditions within the same Communion. The doctrines do not unite. Only the name of the church provides unity and an agreement that there are no set doctrines on these matters -- for now. But the liturgical actions of the structure will change (an ordination is an ordination, a consecration is a consecration) which means that the ultimate decision will be whether one can live, doctrinally, with the changed Communion or the creation of some new option that clashes with Canterbury.

Again, this is so complex, if reporters are going to try to cover the viewpoints of those on both sides of these issues. Note, for example, that there are evangelicals who accept the ordination of women and those who do not. There are also people on the theological left who enthusiastically claim the Anglo-Catholic mantle on issues of worship. So the fault lines are in different places for different people.

But there is one other reality to consider: Look at the screen shot of the Times front page for today, at the top of this post. You've got soccer, of course, and Madonna's love life and other sex scandals. There's the state of the economy.

But where is this historic decision by the Church of England? The story did not make the front page until (wait for it) the Vatican reaction.

So there is the other side of the story. The wars in the global Anglican Communion are, ultimately, about decisions that will be made in the Church of England. But is the Church of England big enough, these days, to make page one in England? Strange.

UPDATE: Interesting email in from Ruth Gledhill, offering some insights into how British papers view the U.S. and this new global WWW news cycle that we are all in. This has been edited a bit to flesh out some IM-style chat.

I think the reason it wasn't page one earlier was simply due to different staff on night and day desk. Also this morning they realised better the global interest and thus gave story better show. Online is edited as much with you guys over there in mind and we often think here, perhaps, that the US is not interested in the Church of England.

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