Time to stop bashing the bishops

It is no business of anyone but the members of the Church of England how it chooses its leaders.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

‘Is the Church of England to remain part of national life, with a history, literature and ethos that provide a rich civic resource for all of society? Or is to become a sect?’ Ouch. Today’s editorial in The Times (London) pulls no punches about Tuesday’s vote of the church’s governing body, the General Synod, to block the appointment of women bishops. The ‘decision leaves the Church looking like an institutional anachronism’, the paper declares.

There has been near universal condemnation of the vote, in which the plan to allow women bishops – with dissenting parishes having the right to a male substitute – failed by the narrowest of margins. The Synod is made up of three ‘houses’: the House of Bishops, the church’s leadership; the House of Clergy, the rank-and-file priests; and the House of Laity, the non-clergy members. In order for the proposal to pass, there needed to be a two-thirds majority in favour in all three houses. The bishops (44 in favour, just three against) and clergy (148 in favour, 45 against) backed the change overwhelmingly. But while the laity also voted in favour, the majority (132 in favour, 74 against) was just six votes short of the required threshold.

Some have claimed that this was a political stitch-up on the part of an alliance of fundamentalists and traditionalists. In reality, it was an impassioned defence of a minority position. As one speaker in the debate, Rosemary Lyon, of Blackburn, said: ‘I am not a misogynist. I really believe we need to stick with scripture. I am not convinced that this is the right time to take this decision.’

From the point of view of the majority of the church’s members, this was clearly a crushing disappointment. There was a large majority in favour of a change in church practice – allowing women equality with men in the clergy and leadership – that has been under discussion since 1966 in one form or another. Women priests have been allowed since a vote in the Synod in 1992. This latest proposal would, in a sense, have been the end of that long process of reform.

So, it is not surprising that there has been considerable anguish at the decision. Times sketch writer Anne Treneman described the moments after the result was announced by the Archbishop of York: ‘A shudder, audible and I swear visible, ran through the room like the shiver of goosebumps up a spine. The Archbishop’s face looked, suddenly, silently, deeply sad. Dr Sentamu, his voice which had only recently led everyone with hearty “hip hip hoorays” for the Queen and Prince Philip’s wedding anniversary, was utterly leaden, neutral.’

Most people, both in and out of the Church of England, would agree that there is little logical reason to deny women the opportunity for leadership, no matter what the organisation. But what should really worry those of us who are not members of the church is the demand for the church to brought to heel.

The prime minister, David Cameron, expressed his anger at the decision: ‘I am very clear that the time is right for women bishops; it was right many years ago. The church needs to get on with it and get with the programme.’ The Labour MP and Christian, Frank Field, has promised to bring forward a private member’s bill in the House of Commons today removing the exemption of the Church of England from equalities legislation. ‘When we gave exemptions under the Sex Discrimination Act we were assured that the church didn’t want to discriminate and that it would bring forward measures to eliminate such discrimination’, said Field.

The Church of England isn’t quite like any other religious group in the UK. It has a significant constitutional role, one that springs from the decision of Henry VIII to break with the Catholic Church in Rome and create a separate church with him as its head. Today, the head of the Church of England is also the UK’s head of state – the queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury presides at major state occasions and he, in turn, is effectively chosen by the prime minister, who ‘advises’ the queen on which candidate to choose. There are 26 bishops – ‘lords spiritual’ – in the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords. The Church of England is ‘the established church’.

So there is more of a case for non-members of the church to have a say in the way the Church of England is run than there might be with any other faith group. Nonetheless, the assumption that decisions made in good faith by a religious group should be second-guessed by non-members of that group is deeply worrying.

Priests and bishops are not just ordinary workers. They are people who have a vocation to serve and who are trained and selected to be leaders of a congregation. How that congregation chooses to select those leaders should be entirely up to the members of that group. If some members of that group, in good conscience, believe that the decision is the wrong one then they should leave the group. Applying employment legislation to the selection of vocational leaders – even if they receive a wage to cover their living costs – is perverse.

It would also be authoritarian. The precedent that would be set is that the state would have the power to ride roughshod over the beliefs of private groups of individuals. We have already seen this tendency to impose the state’s will over religious belief in the cases of registrars unwilling to officiate at civil partnerships, guest-house owners who do not want same-sex or unmarried couples staying in what is also the proprietors’ home, and Catholic adoption agencies who do not want to consider same-sex couples as potential parents. Thou shalt not organise in ways that the authorities disapprove of – even if your members are coming together voluntarily and for no material benefit, but merely to exercise a shared belief. This would be the biggest religious coup in this country since Henry seized the monasteries and proclaimed himself head of the church.

The real problem with the established church voting to continue sexual discrimination is that it is the established church at all. Why on earth, in a modern and largely secular country, does one specific denomination of one religion play such an important constitutional role? Why should bishops get the right to sit in parliament? (More importantly, why is there a second, unelected chamber at all?) It is the fact that the church is so entwined with the state that is the real ‘institutional anachronism’, to borrow the words of that Times editorial.

It is high time to ‘get with the programme’, as David Cameron says. But the programme shouldn’t be to interfere in the self-organisation of private individuals. How the Church of England is organised is no business of anyone who isn’t a member of it. The programme we need to get with should be to cut the ties between church and state once and for all.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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