The Church of England’s governing body is likely to approve legislation that, after more than a decade of debate, will allow women to become bishops. But while church disputes—whether the Vatican’s spat with American nuns or the U.S. Episcopal Church’s bitter real-estate wars with its schismatic conservative congregations—are often fractious and furious, the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has insisted on taking a pragmatic course that has kept the Church of England’s heated battles over sexuality and gender at a more measured level.
When Williams began his term in office in 2003, the Anglican communion was reeling from a bitter if recently resolved war over female priests. Williams had supported that step and cautiously supported the next—the ordination of female bishops. But he insisted on concessions to the “conscience” of congregations that disagreed. The latest version of that legislation, on which the church’s General Synod is scheduled to vote on Nov. 20, promises that requests for alternative male bishops will be treated with “respect.” Williams campaigned for the new language, warning of “intensified internal conflict” if it failed.
Williams’s centrist approach doesn’t suit all of his parishioners. Critics to his left have called his desire for unity his “Obama syndrome”—a fanciful belief that the conservative side will come around if given enough time. They also point out that a large majority of Anglicans support female bishops—42 of the communion’s 44 dioceses approved the new policy—and that the Church of England lags far behind its Anglican counterparts in other Western nations on gender equality. (The Episcopal Church in the United States approved female priests in 1976, nearly two decades before the Church of England, and elected its first female bishop in 1989.)
But Williams’s ability to stake out even the middle ground is becoming more difficult as sexual politics have hardened political lines in churches around the world and driven conservatives of all kinds into alliance. Most recently, while pro-women critics pressed Williams from the left, he faced an assault from the right: the Vatican has opened aggressive campaigns of “papal poaching” against the Church of England, offering itself as a sanctuary to Anglican priests disgusted with their own church’s liberalization. The global alliance among theological conservatives has left many Anglican women to wonder whether a compromise may be the best they can hope for.
This article originally stated that the Episcopal Church elected its first female bishop in 2006, rather than 1989.