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Constitutional Crisis in England’s Church-State Relations?

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The Church of England is continuing to struggle in the backwash after a recent attempt to approve women bishops was sunk when it narrowly failed to win approval from the General Synod’s laity arm after the bishops, clergy and 42 of 44 dioceses had shown strong support for it.
The decision has political ramifications, because the Church of England really is the Church of England: established as the nation’s official religion.

Fortunately, it’s no longer allowed to lord it over other faiths or denominations as the only religion, but it still holds a special status, including 26 seats in the British Parliament’s House of Lords as “Lords Spiritual.”

Those seats could now be in jeopardy.

According to Religion News Service, a memo from General Synod Secretary General William Fittall to other church leaders said, “Unless the Church of England can show very quickly that it’s capable of sorting itself out, we shall be into a major constitutional crisis in Church-State relations, the outcome of which cannot be predicted with confidence.”

One Member of Parliament, who is also a former priest, has proposed stripping the church’s exemption to England’s 2010 Equality Act, which prevents gender-based discrimination.

Prime Minister David Cameron has warned the church to reconsider its “very sad” rejection of women bishops, according to RNS.

Current church bylaws say the matter cannot be considered again for three more years, but some leaders are calling for them to “rip up the rule book” and deal with it more quickly.

On the one hand, those who support gender equality (even in church leadership) would like to see British Anglicans find a way to reconsider and approve the proposal.

On the other hand, it is troubling to consider a situation in which political leaders have so much influence on church matters.

If the matter of women bishops remains unresolved and the conflict ratchets higher, is there a possibility that there could be a parting of the ways for the marriage of church and state in England?

Even at the price of unhappy dissension, that’s one divorce that could be for the best.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.