Sunday, June 20, 2010

It's an innovation, not a reformation

In reporting on the efforts of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to carve out legal protections for traditionalist clergy as the Church of England prepares to give its blessing to women bishops, Mail Online runs a provocative headline:

Archbishops risk 'bloodbath' over women priests by letting opponents of reform remain in the clergy

Laying aside, for the moment, the fact that Canterbury and York are running a fool's errand, the headline is misleading on several counts. First, what is at issue is not "women priests." The Church of England has been ordaining women to the priesthood for some time now. The issue, rather, is admitting women to the office of bishop, a practice which the Mother Church only recently approved over the strenuous objection of traditionalists. But it is the casting of those traditionalists as "opponents of reform" that makes the headline even more misleading.

However one thinks on the issue of women bishops, the practice is, by definition, not a reform. Reformation implies there was a formation in the first place. The aim of the Protestant Reformation was not to introduce new doctrines and practices, but to recover old ones. Historically, there is no precedent in the Church of England for the practice of admitting women to the office of bishop. Thus, any effort to introduce such a practice must necessarily be categorized as an innovation, not a reformation.

This is not a judgment, one way or the other, on the validity of the practice. It is simply a statement of fact. Concerning women bishops, the Church of England is not recovering an old practice but introducing a new one. To call such an innovation a "reform" is to do violence to the historical meaning and significance of the term. For good or ill, the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion will soon be admitting women to the episcopacy. It is an innovation which has not been met with universal approval. To label traditionalists as "opponents of reform" will only lend credence to the long-held belief that innovation is, always and everywhere, a dangerous thing.