Women bishops – at last

women bishopsAll liberals, of whatever political persuasion, will welcome the news that the barriers to appointing women bishops in the Church of England have now been removed.  There has been a lot of misinformation flying around, with the glib portrayal of the bishops as a crowd of geriatric misogynists, so a few facts might help to improve the debate.

The General Synod, which is the governing body of the Church of England, first approved the appointment of female bishops in principle in 2008. Since then it has been trying to agree on the provisions to be made for those local churches which will not accept them, just as it did when women were first ordained as priests.

Two years ago it almost reached agreement on the provisions. The General Synod is made up of three ‘houses’ – bishops, clergy and laity – and all three need to pass legislation for it to become church law. For constitutional changes, such as this one, a two thirds majority is needed. The bishops voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals in 2012, as did the clergy. A majority of the laity were also in support, but were just a few votes short of the two thirds needed.

Since then the two Archbishops have been working on finding an acceptable solution, with the result that all three houses voted strongly in favour yesterday.

Such a change will take some years to work its way through the system, given that women were only ordained as priests 20 years ago.  But I would predict that within ten years the proportion of female to male bishops will match the proportion of women currently in the full-time priesthood, which lies at 30%. And within 20 years the gender balance at all levels will be 50%.

We have to remember that the Church of England is an ancient institution, older than Parliament itself, so it is perhaps not surprising that it moves quite slowly. Indeed, a six year passage from an ‘in principle decision’ to passing final legislation is not bad compared with Parliament’s record on the reform of the House of Lords, which was first agreed in principle over 100 years ago.

Harriet Harman has revealed the levels of sexism within Parliament and her own party. In comparison, Anglican churches throughout the country feel very inclusive and welcoming.

The debate about homosexuality has also been rumbling along in the Church of England for many years. In Parliament, the progress from the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which legalised gay sex for people over 21, to civil partnerships and equal marriage has taken nearly 50 years. And indeed it has taken that long for the public to come round to accepting the LGBT community.

One of those facts again: in 1957 the then Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in the Lords in favour of the Wolfenden Report which proposed decriminalising sexual acts between men (they were never illegal between woman).

Attitudes among church members today are far more liberal than you might imagine. Many clergy are now open about their sexuality. Indeed, I know of two single-sex couples in civil partnerships, one male and one female, who are all priests.  The problem here is that some conservative Christians believe that homosexuality is sinful and forbidden by the Bible. But they are probably not the majority of members. Unlike Parliament, the Church of England likes to work towards consensus, not domination by the majority, so it will take time.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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  • Helen Tedcastle 15th Jul '14 - 12:13pm

    Good article Mary. Thank you.

    As someone who is not an Anglican but has seen the work of outstanding women priests in the church, I have always thought it was simply a matter of time before women were allowed to become Bishops. Ordination of women to the priesthood was truly momentous and paved the way for this move. Let’s not forget that equality for women wasn’t always accepted in secular society in this country until recently (1970s) and some companies still do not promote women of child-bearing age.

    Even so-called progressive political parties do not have a great record on female equality…

    People outside the church who perhaps do not know much about church history and tradition may not realise how complex the issue has been. It is not so easy to maintain unity by imposing ready-made solutions from on-high.

    The only way an issue like this can be resolved is to keep the different groups talking and dialoging.

    As far as I can see, Justin Welby has achieved this. I think Lib Dems could learn a great deal from him!

  • So, hands up anyone who is not a churchgoer but is considering becoming one as a result of the news?

    … anyone?

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Jul '14 - 12:44pm

    Mary, as a Christian who is not currently a worshipping Anglican, I welcome this move and I’m sure many do inside and outsdie the CofE.

    What worries me is the way David Cameron spoke before and after the debate in partisan terms of his preference for this move, and Nick Clegg joined in too, afterwards.

    Whilst the PM continues to operate behind the scenes as part of the selection process for bishops (in a way that we are told – rather optimistically, perhaps – is as impartial and netural as possible), it would surely be unwise for the leaders of the government to take up public positions on an issue of controversy inside the church; consitutionally, it is for the Church to decide this matter, not the politicians. No-one inside or outside the CoF surely wants the CoFE to be the English Ministry for Religion, duty bound to follow the line of whoever is in charge at the time – so why can Cameron not resist meddling in this (admittedly not too extreme) way?

    If Nick wants, as he says he does, a form of disestablishment, he, too, needs to practice what he preaches, and not preach to the church on internal matters.

  • Richard Dean 15th Jul '14 - 12:56pm

    This is a welcome change, long overdue, and something that may indeed attract more people to that church.

  • Now for disestablishment?
    The special privileges enjoyed by the C of E as the established church are the only reasons that women bishops are of any interest to me and the rest of the 83.7% of the UK population who are NOT Church of England. (Source for figures: http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/british-social-attitudes-2013/ )

  • Richard Church 15th Jul '14 - 2:16pm

    Until the CofE is disestablished, its internal workings are the concerns of all of us, including atheists like me. That’s why disestablishment would be good for the church, and for the state.

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Jul '14 - 2:23pm

    Richard Church – not sure if what you wrote was in response to me, but anyway: I recognise that the CofE is of natrually an area to be concerned and aware about for all of us in the UK due to its established status in England; but my point was that the role of decision-making (on everything except a limited role in appointments, alas) is constitutionally reserved by statute to the CofE’s internal processes and Cameron (concerned as he may be) should be careful and guarded what he says, given he has that other consitutional power of being Lord High appointment-confirmer, which is nominally to be exercised in a ‘neutral’ way.

  • Helen Tedcastle 15th Jul '14 - 2:37pm

    @GP Purnell: You are so ‘unconcerned’ and disinterested in the CofE that you have taken the trouble to post a comment about it on LDV !!

    For those who are using this article to post their usual comments about disestablishment, they’re in good company.

    Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and a member of the disestablished Church of Wales, agrees with you.

    You are not saying anything that surprises or worries most Anglicans and in fact I’m sure the church would welcome the move in the fullness of time.

    Personally, I think the church does brilliant work in fostering inter-religious dialogue due to it’s established status. Many people of other faiths respect the church and it’s role in society.

    Many people don’t know or appreciate the great work the church does.

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Jul '14 - 2:42pm

    Helen, I’d personally be prepared to settle for a ‘different kind of establishment’ (something Rowan Williams used to tlka guardedly about, vbefore other matters hijacked his period in office).

    Establishment under the guardianship of the monarch does not have to mean even indirect or partial appointment by the Pirme minister.

    But as no one in senior positions outside this party is ever prepared to call for this and meanwhile the Tory party likes to think of the CoF as something it can dictate terms to and expects it to behave as a source of good schools and the ground-troops of the ‘Big Soicety’, I guess we’re all just whistling in the wind.

  • Helen Tedcastle 15th Jul '14 - 3:57pm

    matt(Bristol): I think you’ll find that the days are long gone when the the CofE was effectively the Tory Party at prayer. Of course, there are conservatives in the Anglican church but there are many other shades of opinion. The CofE has served the community very well in education and I can’t see any good or convincing reason why that should change.

    Returning to the subject of the article – women bishops are an exciting prospect for the church and will bring their talents to the public arena in new ways.

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Jul '14 - 5:21pm

    I think I need to clarify that don’t think that the issue I have with the relationship between the Conservatives and the CoFE is the fault of the CofE – I think it’s just that the attitude of younger, nominal Anglicans in the Tory benches towards the CofE is worryingly high-handed; witness Maria Miller seeming to be effectively publicly telling the bishops (without consultation) what she thought they should be doing or saying during the discussion over same-sex marriage; similarly my beef is not that the CofE provides good education, it’s that many in the leafy, moneyed shires seem to think it should stick to that and shut up about everything else, particularly God, and its these people who sometimes seem to end up as Tory MPs.
    I was a pretty committed and active Anglican in three dioceses in both provinces until about 5 years ago, and I find myself in another denomination more by accident than intent, so I’m not speaking from a position of ignorance (my father has been a deanery synond member to boot).
    My point is that having women bishops is a good move, in my book (and I suspect that people I know will end up int he fullness of time as being women bishops), but ideally it is not and should not be read as a political decision – it needs to be a religious decision made by a religious body and the PM and DPM should respect that by avoiding public lobbying on the issue or any analogous future issues. If we want to have (or are forced to accept) an established church, we need to have a convention that religion is not simply therefore politics carried on by other means, and stick to it. I feel many people do not get this.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 15th Jul '14 - 5:31pm

    Thank heavens is perhaps the appropriate sentiment. Next perhaps CofE members of the same gender being allowed to marry in Church? It is going to happen and is only when, not if!

    As a Buddhist some may feel that I do not have a right to an opinion on this matter, and this would be true possibly if the CofE did not have seats in the House of Lords where they directly influence on the legislations that impacts on us all.

    I personally welcome this somewhat late gesture on gender matters positively, and look to the CofE enfranchising others within their membership as well.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    Liberal Democrat English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrat (EMLD) – Vice Chair

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jul '14 - 10:10am

    Bravo the Church of England.

  • As someone brought up as a Baptist and now a Methodist, it took me a long time to understand why the matter of women priests and bishops was debated for so long within the Anglican Church. Having women in charge or in the pulpit had been part of my church scene without anyone even questioning it. Mary has summarised the reasons well, but all the other general comments about churches become irrelevant to what faith is all about, if you remember that nonconformist churches have not even needed to consider this matter and do not have the heavy legal and regulatory burden of the Anglican Church.
    The Baptist churches have in comparison enormous freedom to make their own decisions on a whole range of issues. I was pleased recently to see that the Baptist Union has removed a few rules they had about ministers so that each local church is now free to make its own decision about whether or not they want their local minister to perform gay marriage. I may have doubts about many of our religious and political institutions, but there are signs of hope for the march of Liberalism in our society still.

  • matt (Bristol) 17th Jul '14 - 9:44am

    Nigel, the nonconformist churches did instensely discuss and debate this matter, they just largely did it some time ago, or agreed among themselves to differ.

    as someone who has moved from Anglicanism to the Bapitist Union, I would say that the ability for individual congregations to choose how they operate is a key distinctive of Baptisit church structure; when you talk about the ‘march of Liberalism’ I would gently remind you that an overal liberal ethos should still allow idividuals and groups to be able to choose a relatively conservative path, not that all conservative pathways are shut off.

  • Mary Reid “Some years before the C of E”, should read many years before the C of E, of course.

  • SIMON BANKS 23rd Jul '14 - 8:03pm

    GP Purnell: I agree with you about disestablisment, though I have seen the C of E playing a very useful role as an interfaith (not just inter-church) kind of referee and facilitator.

    However, as another non-anglican, I do care about sexual equality in all bodies, not just the ones I belong to; and as a Christian, I care about what seems to me mistaken theology. So I’d like to dissent from your suggestion that were it not for the C of E’s privileged position, non-members would be indifferent to the women bishops issue.

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