The Church of England and its Bishops

There is no pleasure to be taken in the vote in the Church of England’s Synod today which failed to reach the majority required to proceed to having bishops in that church who happen to be women. However, I did say a little while ago that had I been in England’s Synod, I think I would have voted against the measure that was proposed even though I’m personally in favour of opening the Episcopate to women and men equally and indeed voted in favour when we faced a similar question in the General Synod in Scotland. (Women can become bishops in the Scottish Episcopal Church but not have done so yet).

The trouble with the measure in England from my point of view is that it was a compromise far too far. It was not a vote for or against women bishops, it was a vote for or against allowing women to become second-class bishops. Churches would have been able to opt out of a female bishop’s care (though not from a male bishop’s care) and request oversight from someone sharing the same theological views. It is the Church of England’s preferred heresy at the moment and it is probably a good thing that it has failed to go any further now though a horrible mess. The Church of England looks foolish and we all end up being tarred with the same brush.

There will (and should be) much soul searching. The abject failure of Rowan Williams’s archepiscopate is now complete. Things will probably not start to get much better in the Church  of England until confident voices who hold sway start to say that out loud. That however will be a long time coming. (It is like the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg – the only hope is in repudiating all he has stood for yet the voices that will continue to be heard in the Lib Dems continue to support policies which are electoral suicide).

There are other lesser failures though. Liberals in the church tend not to be nearly so good at arguing for progressive causes as conservatives are for the things they hold dear. Conservative spokespeople have been popping up everywhere but there has not really been any united campaign group working for equality. Even up to the last minute, groups supportive of women in the episcopate found it hard to say what their members should do because their members were divided. Many believed that the proposal on offer was as good as it was going to get and were prepared to compromise and vote for it, even though they felt like holding their noses whilst doing so. Others, who knows, maybe enough to have swayed the vote, were unconvinced.

This vote was only lost by six votes after all.

Things might be better if there were groupings of people who were working for equality and not prepared to compromise on it.

Looking on at the passion of the Church of England from outside, one finds oneself trying hard to substitute compassion for pity.

There are many fine women priests and the cause for treating them equally in Canon Law is an easy one to make but one which has not been made often enough. Those female clergy deserved better than this measure. The whole church deserved better than this and now has the chance to try to find its way towards it.

The Church of England gets its chance to prove that it worships at something other than the altar of compromise.


  1. Joan H Craig says

    You put it well, and I agree with all that you say. In one sense it is a very sad day for priests who are women. In another, parity is crucial 🙁

  2. Patrick Smith says

    I am not a regular C of E communicant now but have been so in my life and I unequivocally support the proper human rights entitlement of women to serve equally as Bishops.I think that the women priests appear to have been too inclined, cap in hand, to compromise that would still have deemed women bishops, as second class.This Vote, according to some of their spokespersons was as far as the talented women priests could get, amongst the conservative antis, in the C of E.

    Surely,that in our enlightened world men do not hold a monopoly on either the aspiration to achieve good in their work or to eclipse human goodness in prayer,mission and faith in the ranks of the C of E? The Bishops and Clergy have seen that women are now do one third of active work in the C of E but do not have parity at the top table.

    Why is it the case that women are ordained in the US and NZ and have served their communities equally, as men, over 20 years? Whereas, in the C of E at home, the vision of the Laity Synod threatens to derrogate the status of women, as if the clock had been turned back into Victorian times and before the Suffragettes had started their quest for universal suffrage and equality in work for women.

  3. Nigel McCulloch said in the debate, “If you wait for the perfect piece of legislation, you’ll be waiting for ever.”
    I can understand the principled position that you don’t want to pass flawed and discriminatory legislation: but I can’t help thinking this would be better than acquiescing for another 5 years in an even more discriminatory status quo.
    Had women bishops been voted in, they would have had five years to demonstrate practically to their opponents that they were competent, valuable, indispensable, talented and undeniably called leaders in the church. Instead, we now have the task of creating legislation the opponents will like even less (because it won’t make space for their position), and then trying to get it voted through. And five years of practical experience – perhaps the best argument – wasted.
    If there were six lay liberals (the margin of votes) who voted ‘no’ on principle this evening, I wonder how long before they will rue the day? Principle is all very well, but possession is nine-tenths of the law. Had women been granted this possession, we could have spent the next five years chasing down the discriminatory clauses: as it is, we are back to square one. Barren theological argument now prevails over the witness and example of flesh and blood women.

    • I understand that view, Duncan. I’d agree with it if there was any evidence in the last 20 years of anyone either trying or succeeding to eliminate the flying bishops that were created last time around. It is much, much easier to create good legislation than to repeal, tinker and undo bad legislation.

    • Augur Pearce says

      As I see it part of the problem was the large number of Synod members who wanted to see women bishops but thought that unity was more important than principle, and were therefore prepared to compromise. The ideal scenario would not have been rejection of the Measure, but an amendment to get rid of the discriminatory clauses. That wasn’t possible because the ‘unity party’ (for want of a better name) would have allied with the fundamentalists to defeat it. I hope that those who made up this ‘unity party’ will now realise the time for compromise is past and support legislation which, as you say, the opponents will like even less because it won’t make space for their position. I believe such legislation would pass, but would lead the fundamentalists to dissent from the C of E and form their own conventicles (as many have done before them, for better reasons). There would then be some hope of the General Synod addressing other equality issues, such as marriage…

  4. Could it be said that it spent too long cooking?

    The impression I get is that the SEC was quite decisive in dealing with the Covenant earlier.
    What I’ve seen with the CoE looks like internalized via-media meeting a half-open door – and no wonder some people use the word “irrelevant”. As such, I’m wondering if it shouldn’t have simply been “women bishops, yes or no?” a while ago and then there wouldn’t have been such clumsy inaccuracy of reporting, at least…

  5. Ritualist Robert says

    I have to say, regretfully, that I am relieved it didn’t pass because, imho, it allowed for far too many ‘provisions’ for so-called traditionalists. Their arguments seem to be based on one of the most vile theological concepts ever invented – ‘taint’ – though, of course, nobody admits to it. I understand the Evangelicals’ objections (though I disagree with them), but I am flummoxed by things like the ‘traditionalist’ catholics’ demand for ‘flying bishops’ (a concept which fails any test for catholicity) and attacks the very basis of Anglican Church structure and order – that of a bishop acting as the Ordinary in his/her diocese. Choosing one’s bishop based on whether one likes their theological outlook is quite a novelty, but it’s one that the so-called traditionalists insist on being allowed. Moreover, to claim to be catholic surely means to support the Church. When the Church of England ordained women for the first time surely it was up to those catholics who disagreed to either (a) conform their minds to the mind of the Church – surely the duty of anyone who calls themselves catholic – or (b) to have enough integrity to part with the Church and find another spiritual home.

    Instead we have so-called traditionalists promoting what are essentially congregationalist novelties whilst claiming – falsely, I believe – to be catholics, all the while arguing for a distinctly non-catholic version of the Church.

  6. Justin Reynolds says

    If politics is ‘the art of the possible’ then surely all liberals should have backed the measure, whatever its flaws. The notion that one day we will all be marching hand in hand towards the sunlit progressive uplands is somewhat fantastic, I think.

    Everyone who joins the C of E, or indeed the SEC, knows what kind of church it is: essentially progressive (as witnessed by the Synod vote) but with significant minorities opposed to change. And it isn’t like a political party where arguments are conducted in the field of political philosophy and politics with a realistic hope that the mind of the party might change decisively over time in one direction or other. In the case of the church disputes are necessarily more intransigent, concerned with the interpretation of revelation and long standing traditions. These disagreements take decades, indeed centuries, to resolve, in so far as they can be resolved at all.

    Perhaps those who can’t live with compromise, be they conservative or liberal, should consider whether they are actually in the right denomination at all, rather than hoping that one day – sooner rather than later – everyone will agree with them. It’s often noted that conservatives can go Orthodox or Roman Catholic, as indeed some have. It’s less often suggested that liberals might consider Unitarianism or Quakerism. I say that as a liberal who has at various times wavered between those two – and others – and Episcopalianism. I’ve ended up as an Episcopalian, but I did so knowing full well the intractable nature of the disagreements besetting the denomination, and that I had to live with them or simply go elsewhere. It seems to me that Christians are far too sentimental and attached to particular denominations.

    Also, with respect Rowan Williams’ tenure can hardly be seen as an ‘abject failure’. Everyone knew he believed in conciliation and compromise when he was selected. His liberalism on a number of issues only formed a component of his theology. And his intellectual contribution over the past decade to British national life has been significant, particularly in regard to political and economic issues. His archepiscopate has gone some way towards restoring Anglicanism’s intellectual credibility: witness the tributes from secular as well as religious quarters on news of his retirement.

  7. Apparently Diana Johnson MP (Lab., Hull North) is planning to bring a ten-minute rule bill in the new year which will include a clause calling for women bishops. Parliament could succeed here where General Synod failed.

  8. Rosie Bates says

    Check out Bristol Diocese action re Vote of No Confidence in Synod! How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings Good News! Hope the rest take note and follow a fine example. Hope in this Advent message. Bishop Mike was an Area Bishop in Oxford Diocese and likely to be very clued up to certain of their Synod Reps games which cannot be stopped before July without reform or, at the very least, tough love.

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