The Church of England: progressive or conservative?

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Depuis quelques temps déjà, l’Eglise d’Angleterre tente de se réformer. En effet, depuis janvier dernier, les prêtres homosexuels sont autorisés à devenir évêques sous certaines conditions. Mais deux nouvelles mesures relancent aujourd’hui le débat de la modernisation de cette Eglise : la nomination de femmes évêques ainsi que la célébration des mariages homosexuels. Ainsi, y a-t-il une évolution progressiste de l’Eglise d’Angleterre ?

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The Church of England is the established church in England. It is part of the Anglican Communion, which is a worldwide family of churches in more than 160 different countries. It is the largest Christian denomination in England. The Queen is its Supreme Governor and appoints archbishops and bishops on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Today the Church of England is trying to modernize 

In fact, the ordination of female priests has been authorized since 1992 but the issue of women being ordained as bishops is still subject of debate and has not been accepted yet. In London, an overwhelming majority in the Anglican Church approved on November 20, 2013 the principle of the ordination of women bishops. This is a sort of “revolution” because the same project failed last year. The project was approved by 378 votes in favour, 8 against and 25 abstentions. It should be finally approved in favour of a new General Council between July and November 2014.

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Moreover, the Church of England opened the door to the possible celebration of gay marriages. A report prepared at the request of the Church by four bishops says the priests should be free to celebrate homosexual unions. The report represents merely a new basis for future discussions rather than a new church policy. However, it is a clear shift in official doctrine. The same-sex marriage law was voted last year in Britain and will come into effect in mid-2014. It does not force the Anglican Church to celebrate same-sex marriages. 

In January, another measure authorized homosexual priests united by a civil partnership to become bishops. In fact, the Anglican Church of England announced on January 4 that it was lifting the ban on priests to be ordained bishops if they are civilly united, but on one condition: they have to agree to remain chaste. Before, they could be ordered only if they were also single. Let it be noted that married heterosexual priests and bishops are not subject to the obligation of chastity.

Why does the Church really have to modernize? 

The Church of England has lost nearly half of its faithful in the last forty years. The top leaders of the Church are worried that it may soon disappear. Furthermore, tensions between progressives and conservatives on ethical issues and on the record of the ordination of women and homosexuals have weakened Anglicanism since the early 1990s and it is important to avoid deadly divisions.

Women now represent half of all ordinations. And their accession to the rank of bishop is allowed in many countries, as in Australia, the United States, Wales, Canada, and South Africa. The ordination of women bishops is therefore not a particularly new measure and would homogenize Anglican churches.

The report about gay marriages does not provide specific celebrations of homosexual unions. It mainly stresses the need for the Church to repent on how gays and lesbians have been treated in the past.

These measures thus open the door to the beginning of a modernization.

However, these measures are not unanimous

For some English faithful, rooted in “Anglo-Catholic” tradition, the reforms are clearly against “the biblical tradition”. In 2009, the Catholic Church offered to host the faithful, but also bishops and priests. Thus, some of the old faithful of the Church of England joined the Catholic Church because of these reforms. In fact, conversions to Catholicism by some Anglicans are overwhelmingly consecutive to the divisions on gay marriage, the ordination of women and homosexuals as priests in the Anglican Church.

The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual head of the Church of England, said that he was opposed to gay marriage. But he also added that the attitudes towards homosexuality have changed and that the position of the Church could be seen as out-of-step with public opinion. In fact, some surveys reveal that most Britons have a more relaxed attitude towards same-sex relationships than before.

In the worldwide Anglican Communion, the possible arrival of women bishops in the Church of England will highlight the growing gap between Western countries and the South.

Mélina FRIZON & Emilie REMOND

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