Over the past several years, my faith journey has taken me away from nondenominational, non-institutional expressions of the church. Since then, I’ve found myself belonging to the mother of all Christian institutions (well, apart from the Catholic Church): the Anglican Communion.
This journey might not have taken place if it weren’t for a wonderful little Church of England parish my wife and I belonged to when we were living in the UK in 2008. Being part of an active worshipping community that had been gathering in the same place since the 1300s has a way of putting my own faith journey into perspective. As I entered the sanctuary every Sunday, walking past tombstones of those who’d been dead for centuries, I was reminded: Christianity doesn’t begin or end with me. I am a tiny part of something so much bigger.
And so I’ve come to appreciate what the institutional church, for all its flaws, has to offer: a vital connection to our past. I think there is something significant, maybe even a bit mystical, in the idea of apostolic succession — in the fact that the bishop who presided over my confirmation is part of an unbroken chain going all the way back to the very first apostles.
Jesus gave those first apostles the authority to “bind and loose” — that is, to permit and forbid on behalf of the church — and I believe that authority is passed down through the church’s apostles, bishops, or leaders today.
Yet a deep connection to the past can either give you the courage to move forward, or it can hold you back. Which is why today, I have no energy to defend the institutional church. Not when my own mother church* tells half the human race, in effect, Your services aren’t required. The Church of England’s vote against women bishops was more than another nail in the coffin of its own irrelevance. It was a slap in the face to women who are tired of fighting for a seat at the table.
It was, I believe, a rejection of the very apostolic authority the institutional church depends on for legitimacy. How can you stand on the shoulders of the apostles when you implicitly reject one of their number? After all, Junia was a woman and an apostle (Romans 16:7). By rejecting women bishops, you are rejecting Junia, a vital part of our apostolic foundation.
This is about more than cultural relevance. It’s about more than making women feel welcome in the church (though that in itself is a worthy enough endeavor). By denying women their rightful place at the table — a place they had in the very beginning — we the institutional church are cutting our legs out from under us. We’re not just hurting women. We’re hurting all of us.
Apparently, God thought women were worth including among the apostles. Today, a minority in the Church of England seems to think otherwise. Sadly, that was enough to carry the day.