Does public opinion matter after all?

This is a response to the Church of England’s House of Bishops reportmaking new proposals for women bishops. I am pleased with its main proposal but I have two points to make. One can wait till later. The other responds to the opening paragraph:

The House of Bishops has met on three occasions since November’s General Synod. At our first meeting in December we acknowledged the profound and widespread sense of anger, grief and disappointment felt by so many in the Church of England and beyond at the decision of the Synod not to give final approval to the proposed legislation to enable women to become bishops.

Oh. Who are the ‘and beyond’? After decades of determination to provide special concessions to the dwindling number of people who think only men can be bishops, and after defying public opinion on a range of issues at the behest of the Church’s most reactionary lobbies, is this a sign that public opinion has been rediscovered?

Yes. The decision to work on producing these proposals was made very soon after the General Synod vote in November when the House of Laity just failed, by a few votes, to get the necessary two-thirds majority. Why did they make that decision? The failure of the vote had generated widespread shock and anger. Of course, they expected shock and anger among the supporters of women bishops; but it was shared by the whole country – not just churchgoers but the general public, the mass media and members of Parliament. This reaction took church leaders by surprise. For once they could not fail to hear the message that the mean-spirited determination to defend the most reactionary elements in the Church against public opinion was not only suppressing more liberal voices but also discrediting the whole Church.

There is a logic behind these positions, a logic which, when spelt out, helps us realise what is at stake. Reactionary Christianity, like most reactionary religious positions, has a divisive character. It presumes that true religion is based on what has been inherited from the past. But not just any past: the past to be preserved is the past of the reactionary’s own tradition. This means two things. Firstly, by definition reactionary movements reject the new; but secondly, they reject anything that comes from outside their own tradition.

Here lies the issue. The proposal to have women bishops is not only new (well, since the third century) but also comes from public opinion. The whole gender equality movement is a moral demand, not rooted in Christian doctrine as defined by church leaders. Of course it would be easy enough for a social historian to show how Christian values have contributed to modern secular society’s preference for gender equality, but that is another matter. From the perspective of a ‘traditionalist’ it comes from outside their Christian tradition. But if their tradition is, as they often believe, the only true Christian authority, then public opinion becomes irrelevant. It has nothing to contribute. God has revealed Christian truth to one’s own church, or to the Bible as interpreted by one’s own church, and any ideas coming from elsewhere are to be ignored.

Liberal theology offers a different account of authority. Truth, even divine revelation, can come from any source at all. Churches do not have a monopoly on it. If new insights are coming through public opinion, this is something we should welcome. Not every new idea of public opinion is true, and each one has to be tested on its merits; but some new ideas are true and godly, even if their immediate source is secular public opinion.

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