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Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, noted in 2012 just after his Church rejected legislation that would have allowed women to become bishops that a “lot of explaining” would be necessary. For the Church of England “undoubtedly” lost a “measure of credibility” societally as a result. “We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” he told the Church’s General Synod. “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.” As a result, “we have . . . undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.” Some commentators even suggested that the Christian sect known as the Anglican Church might lose appreciable membership as a result. While such a prediction may be exaggerated, Williams’ comments can be unpacked for greater insight.

 general synod

First, whenever an organization breaches societal norms, it can be expected that the group suffers a loss of credibility, or reputational capital, as a result. This is true of entities in business and government as well as religion. When the breach is on a well-established norm, the loss of credibility can effectively relegate the organization in terms even of being taken seriously.

Second, Williams points to “theological principle” as a possible rationale behind the laity chamber’s rejection of the proposal. It is interesting that the theological point was not an obstacle in the clerical chamber, as the proposal passed there. It can be asked, however, whether the tradition passed down that Jesus had only male disciples is indeed a theological principle. If so, would a preference for bread at breakfast be a theological principle for a Christian were Jesus said to have only eaten bread in the morning? Theologically, if Jesus is “fully human, fully divine,” then would his particular habits while on earth necessarily be theological in nature if they are in regard to the “fully human” side? Jesus walking through a door after his resurrection can be taken as theological in nature, whereas absent any theological rationale on his part for having a bunch of guys as disciples, it could have been a reflection of the culture at the time. Were Mary Magdalene one of the disciples, the assumed theological principle would turn out to be wrong, which would have even greater implications for historical Christianity in that it will have been wrong on something it regarded as theological. In short, the “fact” that Jesus walked around historically introduces non-theological reasons for some of his decisions.

Third, the argument that a theological rationale should have priority over a well-established cultural norm introduces complexities. On the one hand, God’s omnipotence, or power, cannot by definition be limited to human mores or even ethical principles. The Book of Job bears this point out. God does not exactly allow Job to be treated ethically by the devil. On the other hand, the theological domain transcends a human’s grasp. To the extent that allowing a theological principle to trump a societal norm—even an ethical norm—implies a sort of omniscience or “all-knowing” regarding the principle, it could be that societal norms, at least with regard to what is believed to be fair, should constrain how far people go with their theological principles (even if such a limitation does not apply to God). In short, the vote may evince a certain theological arrogance. William’s reference to the vote not being “intelligible” to the wider society could imply a certain conceit, for it could be that the common-sense fairness regarding women was not “intelligible” to the Church’s laity represented in the chamber that voted down the proposal. If so, the proper response would not be one of a “lot of explaining to do,” but, rather, a lot of listening.

For more on this piece, please see: “Women Bishops: Rowan Williams Says Church Has ‘Lot Of Explaining To Do,” The Huffington Post, November 21, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/21/women-bishops-archbishop-_n_2169883.html?utm_hp_ref=uk

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