History shows the church can change, and it will survive

By on June 1, 2008

Glacial’ is a term occasionally used to describe the pace of change in the church.

Certainly, to people who are advocates for change, the wait can feel like an eternity.

But, others remind us, change usually happens in God’s good time, not ours.

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As the Anglican Journal prepares to cover this summer’s Lambeth Conference, the meeting every 10 years of all bishops of the Anglican Communion, we compiled a chronology that we think will be a helpful resource (please see p. 14-15) to show Anglican readers how the church has been challenged by the issues of the day, how it has wrestled with and responded to changes in societal norms and evolved over time.

While combing through a Canadian church database (www.anglican.ca/library/lambethsearch) of all of the Lambeth resolutions since its inception in 1867, it becomes clear that the Anglican church worldwide has repeatedly undergone major upheavals. Each of those changes was monumental at the time, yet their significance – like the remarriage of divorced persons – faded as popular culture moved on and carried on as if the innovation had always been so.

As the research of staff writer Marites Sison shows, Anglican bishops (and the church at large) have wrestled over the years with many contentious issues including divorce, contraception, abortion, polygamy, and the ordination of women.

In some cases there was a 180-degree turnaround in attitude: in 1888, for example, polygamists could not be baptized, but by 1988 they could be. This was a recognition of the realities of some cultures where women outnumber men due to disease or war; they also acknowledged in 1958 that the introduction of monogamy into polygamous societies “involves a social and economic revolution and raises problems” which the church had not yet solved. The problem of polygamy, they said, was “bound up with the limitations of opportunities for women in society,” and they urged the church to improve the status of women, especially through education.

Typically, the changes came in increments.

Tracking the issue of women’s ordination over the decades is instructive. While the worldwide church was examining the role of women in the church as early as 1920, the Lambeth Conference of 1948 appeared to squelch debate on the matter of women priests. At that time the bishops said, “the time has not come for its further formal consideration” – this despite the fact that Florence Li Tim Oi had already been ordained in 1944 as a special measure to minister to Anglicans in China amid turmoil caused by the Japanese invasion.

Debate continued through the 1968 Lambeth gathering and by 1978 – two years after six women were ordained priests in Canada – the conference had declared its acceptance of provinces which ordained women.

Although the wait must have felt interminable to those women who had long before heard the call of the Holy Spirit, the wider church nevertheless moved through its studies and processes before the notion of woman priests gained acceptance. Thirty years on, the church continues to wrestle with the issue as some dioceses and provinces continue not to recognize women as priests or bishops. For others, it was a communion-breaking issue and they split from the church.

Historical context is critical to how we view the push for change in today’s church.

When examined from the perspective of time, the Anglican Communion has changed with the times, when it was appropriate or justified by Scripture. The change has seldom come as rapidly as some would like, but at the same time more quickly than others can bear.

As several hundred bishops prepare for the Lambeth Conference next month, much of the Anglican world waits to hear how they will grapple with the divisive issue of sexuality. Change may come to their 1998 decisions – that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture.”

But history is instructive. It tells us that when change happens, the church can, and does survive.

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Speaking of change, this is my last editorial for the Anglican Journal (please see p. 9 for related story). I have considered it a privilege to work for a church that allows its newspaper the editorial freedom to cover the church honestly and thoroughly. As a parting wish, I hope Journal readers continue to demand much of their church and their newspaper; you deserve nothing less than honesty, transparency and accountability.

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