How many people watching or listening to the news coverage of the vote by the General Synod of the Church of England (the Church’s governing body) against the appointment of women bishops actually care? Not many I would guess, and then not for long. The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks the Church has ‘a lot of explaining to do’ to the wider community and that it has ‘lost a measure of credibility’ after the decision and the BBC are rightly making it headline news. But I believe the Church had already neglected the wider population of the country and the argument for disestablishment has been growing. Ex-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith tweeted that the Church no longer represented the country. How many people thought it did anyway?
But we should care. Not because of reasons of faith – we are a multi-cultural, multi-faith country and we can choose to have any faith or none. But we should care because the Church does still have a huge political influence in this country and across the world, often in countries where women experience far greater inequality than in the UK. This decision signals the long-term and inevitable decline of an established Church which I personally find alienating and dispiriting; but if the vote had gone the other way it might just have become a force for some sort of real change. How can we accept or take seriously the Church’s involvement in discussions at the highest level when it remains exempt from equality legislation? Whilst the House of Lords allows 26 unelected bishops a say in our legislation we have to take this seriously.
I don’t say this as someone with an overwhelming interest in the health of the established church. But I have an interest in politics, in history and in equality and what bothers me most is the hypocrisy of the whole situation.
For goodness sake, the Head of the Church is a woman, and Queen of this country. The current and next Archbishop of Canterbury are deeply upset at the result. The majority of the bishops and clergy are in favour of a change in the legislation which currently prevents women who have chosen a priestly vocation from advancing in a career that was a male preserve almost to the end of the 20th Century.
So who has prevented this desperately needed change? What has stopped those women – many wonderful ministers and committed Christians – from breaking through what one smart person on Twitter called today ‘the stained-glass ceiling’?
It was the laity – those people who represent parishioners around the country. Sufficient of them voted against the proposal to prevent the necessary two-thirds majority being achieved. Apparently it is those the legislation sought to protect who have still voted against it. No wonder women priests felt betrayed – it has taken twenty years of fighting for a satisfactory wording to get legislation this far, those women and men who wanted the change thought they had addressed all their opponents fears, just to find that many still won’t play.
Now I am not a regular church goer. I would, if required to acknowledge allegiance to a formal religious organisation become a Quaker – a tolerant and liberal group of people without all the pomp and schism of the established church. I appreciate that those who have studied the bible in detail will present me with their reasons why those few people who still turn up in our beautiful but inevitably crumbling historical churches on a Sunday morning should be protected from loving and committed female priests. I will always believe they are mistaken.
Are we seriously saying that if the Jesus the Church of England promotes was alive in the 21st century he would treat women so abominably? Would he undermine and devalue their faith and commitment to it? Would he suggest they were not good enough to work to spread His word? Would he believe in inequality, in-fighting and injustice? Doesn’t this highlight a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the issue?
Why should we trust the established church when we look at some of the attitudes to same-sex marriage (failing to even accept that such a thing is possible); the lack of tolerance towards gay clergy and the possibility of their living openly with a partner in the vicarage; the long hours ministers are expected to work for low wages in poor quality accommodation with little in the way of long-term provision for a comfortable old age; the role of faith schools.
I see the people heading into the church close to us as the bells ring out every Sunday. I would estimate the average age to be around 70. Does the Church rely on people like me to decide, as I realise I am getting on a bit and need an insurance policy, to start polishing the pews and turning up to sing out of tune for an hour each week? I suggest that those of us in middle-age in 2012 are of a very different view.
Apparently it will at least five years before the legislation gets to the position where another vote on this matter is possible. By then will it be too late to save the established church? In that period what greater power will those with more fundamentalist views from all religions be wielding? The Church of England has always had a reputation for being a cosy, nostalgic and undemanding faith system in this country, a reputation which is pretty harmless until it starts bolstering inequality, intolerance and injustice.
So in my view it does matter, a lot.