I don't envy the archbishop of Canterbury.
As the titular head of the Anglican communion -- the world's third largest Christian denomination -- Rowan Williams (pictured) has struggled to hold together a church that is fundamentally divided over issues like whether or not to ordain gay priests and female bishops. And if this past weekend is any bellwether of what's to come, he's not going to be able to keep his Communion "communal" for much longer.
The latest showdown among Anglicans took place in the archbishop's own backyard. It was at a meeting of the Church of England's General Synod (a lawmaking body) in the city of York, which began Saturday and ended Tuesday. On the docket was a piece of legislation that has long vexed the Mother Church: one that would allow female bishops to be ordained as early as 2014.
In an attempt to placate more conservative factions within the church who view such a practice as inconsistent with church doctrine, the archbishop crafted an amendment to allow a new tier of all-male bishops
who would look after parishes opposed to female bishops. These so called "flying" bishops (who have never ordained a woman) would have given traditionalists the formal protection they wanted from female ministry.
But it didn't work. Though the compromise proposal was approved by a majority of bishops and laity
, the clergy -- 40 percent of whom are women -- defeated the measure, 90-85, with five abstentions. (The synod is divided into "houses" of bishops, clergy, and laity, and on big decisions all three must separately supply majorities.) In the end -- after much wrangling and a few highly visible walkouts -- a fragile peace emerged. Both sides accepted that local arrangements should be made for Anglicans wanting to exempt themselves from female leadership
. But it will be a code of practice -- not a piece of legislation -- that caters to the sensibilities of those who oppose women. In other words, de facto but not de jure.
The draft legislation allowing for the ordination of women bishops will now wend its way through a deliberative process among the church's 43 dioceses before a final vote is taken in 2012. While it's possible that the proposal could still fail to gain majority approval at the next General Synod, the basic legal premise that women can become bishops is now in place.
So what are we to make of this latest tussle over the future direction of the Anglican communion?
In many ways, the defeat of the compromise legislation was a defeat for Williams himself
. And this wasn't the only challenge to his leadership. Earlier in the week, Williams took a priest off of the short list to be bishop of Southwark because of the man's openly gay -- albeit celibate -- relationship with another man. Liberal members of the Church of England castigated Williams
for (once again) kowtowing to conservative pressure on social issues. There is now speculation that Williams might step down
, although both the British government and the Church of England have denied reports of a briefing paper on how the prime minister should respond in the event that Williams suddenly resigns. (Because the Church of England is the official religion of the United Kingdom -- i.e. there is no separation of church and state -- the prime minister is involved in the appointment process
for a new archbishop of Canterbury.)
But the internal divisions on exhibit within the Church of England this week are hardly an isolated incident. The American Episcopal Church has already fragmented
over issues like homosexuality and the ordination of women. Traditionalists have broken away and founded their own congregation -- the Anglican Church in North America, which is much more allied with conservative dioceses in Latin America and Africa. The recent ordination of an openly lesbian bishop
in Los Angeles is only likely to reinforce these fault lines on a global scale.
There's also the question of how this emerging split within the Anglican communion will affect the Catholic Church. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI announced a plan that would allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church
without renouncing their Anglican traditions and beliefs. More than 1,300 clergy, including 11 serving bishops,
wrote to the archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2008 to warn that they would leave the Church of England if they were not given proper provisions when women were made bishops. Only time will tell how credible a threat that was, but these disaffected Anglicans certainly have a viable exit option in the Catholic Church.
Nor are these schisms between progressive and traditionalist factions unique to the Church of England. The Catholic Church itself -- particularly after the bruising debates over the pedophilia scandal -- is riven by all sorts of divisions over the ordination of women and celibacy, among other issues
And then, finally, there is the simple matter of gender. In a year when much has been made about the triumph of women in politics
and the economy
, let's not overlook the power and resilience of women in the clergy. At least in the United Kingdom and the United States, these ladies of the cloth have had quite a year as well.
Follow Delia on Twitter.