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Church of England shakes up system

The Church of England's willingness to approve the ordination of women priests is only one of a number of controversial issues confronting Britain's established church.

The Nov. 15 vote underscores how much the Anglican Church has been in the forefront of the news here this year. Scarcely a day goes by when the Times of London does not carry at least one letter that bears on the direction of the Church of England.

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The controversies relate as much to theological debates over the authenticity of the miracles of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection, as to pressing political matters.

Yet, in many instances, it has been churchmen who have been most severe in scolding the government for what they see as insensitivity to human suffering arising from the miners' strike and massive unemployment. For a government that prides itself on being a force for good because it condemns picket-line violence and upholds parliamentary democracy, the moral strictures of the clergy have been irksome.

Cabinet ministers have replied loftily that it is understandable that the church is concerned, but that people who are not professionally equipped to know all the facts should not pass judgment.

The government's irritation at ''political'' sermons was reflected at the recent Conservative Party conference. With uneconomic coal mines clearly in mind , a leading Tory tartly suggested that if the clergy concentrated on spiritual instead of political issues, there might be fewer uneconomic churches.

The public's reaction to the controversial remarks of bishops has been largely approving, if polls are any guide. But there are anxieties within the church membership as a whole because of recent stands the church is seen to be taking, or because of singularly controversial interventions by individual churchmen.

Some of the tensions arise from the polarization between two radically different doctrinal approaches.

At one extreme are the born-again Christians.

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At the other are the ''demythologizers,'' such as Don Cupitt, dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the bishop of Durham, the Rt. Rev. David Jenkins. They adopt a highly rational, intellectual approach in their interpretation of the Bible.

The head of the Church of England, Dr. Robert Runcie, has been sensitive to the controversies aroused by the demythologizers. Dr. Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury, cautioned those whose pronouncements could be unsettling even to profound thinkers in the church.

He clearly had in mind remarks in which the bishop of Durham questioned, among other accepted articles of faith, whether the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection were historical facts. Many members of Parliament, which must approve bishops, were enraged because the bishop raised such ''heresies'' soon after he was enthroned.

Now the Church of England has become involved in yet another momentous issue with its vote to work toward the ordination of women priests.

The margin of victory (307 for; 218 against) is a measure of how opinion has shifted since similar legislation was defeated six years ago. But more votes are required, and there is no guarantee the needed two-thirds majority approval can be achieved.

Dr. Runcie's own position indicates the sensitivity of the issue. In principle he favors women priests, but he voted against the measure for fear it could be divisive. The Roman Catholic archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, termed the move an ''obstacle'' in the continuing ecumenical talks between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

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