The General Synod of the Church of England will decide today whether to appoint women as Bishops. Many say this is the biggest breakthrough for women in the church, but history would contend with that idea.
The true architect of the Anglican church, Thomas Cranmer had woman trouble himself. The idea of appointing women to the clergy or to hold the office of Bishop would have been laughable to him. Cranmer’s women's issue was about his ability to even take a wife!
The tradition of clerical celibacy, approved of by Henry VIII in both his Catholic and Anglican phases, meant that Priests like Cranmer were unable to marry. In fact, it was simply easier to take a mistress, this was generally accepted as necessary, fulfilling the letter of the law if not the spirit of it.
Upon his first marriage, Cranmer had to resign his post at Jesus College and was almost reduced to poverty. Sadly the first Mrs Cranmer died in childbirth.
Cranmer’s rise to power was sudden and unexpected, as were his increasingly Lutheran views. After his appointment to Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer came home to England with a second wife. She was kept so secretly that no one is even sure of her name. Certainly, Cranmer’s many enemies were not even sure of her existence. There are some wonderful stories of the new Mrs Cranmer being smuggled into England in a large box with ventilation holes. Not quite the honeymoon she had dreamed of!
The problem may not have been the actual act of marriage, but rather that the wife in question was from German Lutheran stock. Either way, when the tide turned again with the Six Articles, tipping the balance back towards catholic doctrines and celibacy, Cranmer was forced to move his wife and children out of England for safety.
The big challenge for Anglicans from the beginning has been the pressure to compromise doctrines in order to hold differing factions together within a broad church. From rules about wives, to constant alterations of the prayer book - This gentle approach has meant the survival of the church, but is it a church of biblical faithfulness, or one which turns with the tide of current opinion?
Both sides in today’s important debate will undoubtedly feel the weight of history, doctrine and righteousness behind them, both cannot be right. What began with Cranmer’s hidden wife has opened a box which now cannot be closed. For 21st Century Western Anglicans shaped by cultural sensitivities, the inevitable end point will come today with Women Bishops out in the open.
I wonder whether Cranmer himself would rather it remained all hidden away, but we no longer have that option. No longer is it easier to use the analogy of taking a mistress - allowing women to officiate on the quiet in all but name, fulfilling the rules on a surface level. At least the situation will be clear, and perhaps with this new openness will come the breaking apart of the church that Cranmer started?