Could the Bishops vote be a setback for the Church of England’s (relative) liberal feminism?


9:03 am - November 22nd 2012

by John B    


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The Church of England’s General Synod rejection of female bishops is a sad thing. Rob is understandably cross.

I don’t wholly disagree with him, but I think it’s worth remembering that the Church of England:

  1. was created by a woman (Henry VIII’s Church rejected the authority of the Pope, but remained Catholic in doctrine; it was Elizabeth I who turned it into a solidly Protestant church after Mary I’s attempt at Catholic, erm, revivalism);
  2. is headed by a woman (Liz’s namesake, defender of the faith);
  3. had a massive “yes” vote to the ordination of female priests from both the House of Bishops (0% female, 94% ‘yes’) and the mixed-sex House of Clergy (29% female, 77% ‘yes’);
  4. saw the vote defeated for failing to achieve a two-thirds majority in the mixed-sex, non-ordained House of Laity, made up of democratically elected representatives of churchgoers (46% female, 64% ‘yes’).

The all-male boys-club dinosaurs voted almost solely for equality, the still-male dominated clergy were overwhelmingly for equality, and the mixed-sex representatives of the Church’s congregation (which is itself about 65% female) were the most bigoted of the lot.

In other words, if the Church wasn’t so keen to give regular churchgoers a say, female bishops would totally be a thing already, and the massive blow to both PR and moral authority of voting for discredited Pauline nonsense wouldn’t have happened.

Or to address Rob’s specific point: the people who benefit from the Church being part of the state; the people who are part of the state in the sense that he means, are overwhelmingly in favour of the church meeting civilised, liberal egalitarian norms.

The Church is only inegalitarian in the only sense in which it is separated from the state: because the people who vote in House of Laity elections – people who make it to the Anglican church every week, you get the idea – are vastly more bigoted than its clergy, its bishopry, and the population at large.

Far better if it were governed by the democratic will of all the people who it represents (the majority of English people still identify as Church of England), or none at all.

I was going to add, I don’t know why the female-dominated C of E congregation choose to elect representatives (both male and female) who hate women.

But on reflection, I’m pretty sure it’s that, although many women whose views mirror those of Ann Widdecombe in rejecting the C of E’s modest levels of inclusivity and egalitarianism have opted to join the Roman Catholic Church (which, obviously, has none of either), some have stayed with what they know. Sadly, yesterday’s vote is likely to keep them on board for longer.

UPDATE: thanks to Colin in the comments below, and others on Twitter, for pointing out that I’ve misunderstood the House of Laity electoral system. I thought it was chosen by STV from an electorate of church congregations; it isn’t. It’s chosen by STV from an electorate of Lay Members of Deanery Synods; they are the ones who are elected by parishioners – so there’s an extra step of busybody-with-too-much-time-on-their-hands between the congregation and the House of Laity.

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About the author
John Band is a journalist, editor and market analyst, depending on who's asking and how much they're paying. He's also been a content director at a publishing company and a strategy consultant. He is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy and also blogs at Banditry.
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Reader comments


It’s a bit unfair to lay into the house of laity for being bigoted, a majority there did also vote for the measure, the sort of majority that if it voted for an MP would be the building block of a ‘safe seat’. However it appears rules have subverted the will of the churchgoing majority, and the tail is now wagging the dog.

2. Chaise Guevara

From your list, points 1 and 2 are irrelevant to the issue. The CoE was “created” by a powerful woman and is currently headed by a woman, but they are both in that position (normally filled by a man) through an accident of birth, not out of any respect for gender equality. I mean, if we decided that in fact Henry VIII created the CoE, and we happened to have a man on the throne, would that suddenly make the institution sexist again?

Regarding your other points, and the rest of your article: this all sounds very sensible. I was basically assuming that CoE clergy was riddled with obstinate conservatives, and it seems this isn’t the case.

“Vastly more bigoted”–charming, as ever.

Frankly, I’m amazed that the Church has managed to stick to some of its principles. Who knew? Perhaps there is hope for it yet.

As for the predictable reaction of Guardian reading hipsters, Anglicans would do well to remember that these are people who, for the most part, don’t care about Christianity or the Church, and hardly have its best interests at heart. Why trash your ancient institution just to make them happy? They won’t respect you for it. They won’t even remember it for longer than the sixty seconds it takes them to get worked up about some other terrible way that all of human history hasn’t been organised in accordance with their preferences.

Jon B @ the OP:

You keep going on about “bigotry”, “women hating” and failure to live up to “civilised” values. Could you perhaps explain to us poor ignorant souls what exactly the arguments against female Bishops were?

Arguments against female bishops:

A: “God says women should be subservient”
B: “No he doesn’t”
A: “But Paul does”
B: “Well, Paul isn’t God and it’s likely that RCC misogynists in subsequent years distorted his words”
A1: “Well I’m actually a Catholic but I pretend to be an Anglican for the social status, so I’m down with that”
A2: “Well, I’m a misogynist so I’m down with that”.

Don’t think I’ve missed much. Apologies to St Paul, as @nanayasleeps on Twitter notes, he is much misquoted, although not as much as yer man JC himself.

Surely the theology is the only thing that matters? Modern ideas of gender equality are irrelevant to a religion that’s 1900 years old.

Chris: erm. No. Only the very maddest sects believe the Bible to be the literal word of God, and the CofE is not among them. Without that literalism, of course everything has to be interpreted according to contemporary values, hence why the Church doesn’t marry 12 year olds or execute heretics any more.

I must protest at your comment that the laity is more conservative than the clergy. We did NOT vote for the so-called representatives in the House of Laity. Would that we were given the chance. The voting is confined to deanery synod members, most of whom tend to be retired, conservative and grey-haired. Younger people don’t put themselves forward for the deanery synods because they tend to be talking shops achieving nothing. The antis knew this and cynically stacked them to get their people onto the general synod. If all church members were able to vote members onto the general synod, the make-up would be totally different and the vote would have been a resounding yes.

What really needs to happen is a root and branch reform of synod. Democratic it most certainly is not.

10. Derek Hattons Tailor

@8 The only point to any traditional religion is precisely that it transcends and therefore isn’t “relevant” to modern society. If you want a relevant religion, pick a (post) modern one: environmentalism, healthism, consumerism, careerism etc..

11. The XYZ Line

John @ 6:

That’ll be a “No, I don’t actually understand the arguments,” then.

“A: “God says women should be subservient”
B: “No he doesn’t”
A: “But Paul does””

God also chose only men to be His Apostles, so it’s not just a “Paul says…” thing.

“B: “Well, Paul isn’t God and it’s likely that RCC misogynists in subsequent years distorted his words””

Distorted his words how? By imposing tenuous and far-fetched interpretations on his writings? If so, examples please. Or by deliberately editing them to change what they said? If so, evidence please.

Colin: thanks and apologies for that – I’ll amend the post accordingly when I’m on the other computer.

Degsy’s Tailor: this fails to explain why it’s acceptable within the context of scripture and tradition for the church to shift its position and oppose child marriage and the execution of heretics, but not for the church to shift its position and support gay marriage or the ordination of female bishops.

XYZ: you know, or should know, that there is a lively debate within theological and historian circles about the extent to which Paul’s writings are attributable to the historical character, and if they are, the extent to which they are faithful to his original letter, speeches and acts.

Yes, Jesus only chose blokes to be his apostles. Can you even imagine, in the historical context of Roman-occupied Judea, a comparable movement existing that did otherwise? My understanding of the patriarchal nature of both societies is that it’d be inconceivable. So it’s not a brilliant zinger (bear in mind, He also only chose Middle Eastern Jews to be his apostles – and not even the fruitloopiest of the J4J crowd believe that only Middle Eastern Jews should have episcopal authority…)

13. The XYZ Line

John @ 12:

“Yes, Jesus only chose blokes to be his apostles. Can you even imagine, in the historical context of Roman-occupied Judea, a comparable movement existing that did otherwise? My understanding of the patriarchal nature of both societies is that it’d be inconceivable.”

Because Jesus was just so reluctant to challenged established norms?

“bear in mind, He also only chose Middle Eastern Jews to be his apostles – and not even the fruitloopiest of the J4J crowd believe that only Middle Eastern Jews should have episcopal authority…”

It would have been quite hard to find non-Jews in first-century Galilee, and not at all hard to find women, so the absence of one group is significant whereas the absence of the other isn’t.

Perhaps Jesus was worried about upsetting people, and that’s why he never mentioned it?

15. Robin Levett

@XYZ #13:

It would have been quite hard to find non-Jews in first-century Galilee, and not at all hard to find women, so the absence of one group is significant whereas the absence of the other isn’t.

So historical happenstance is irrelevant when talking about Jew/Gentile, and not when talking about male/female.

In fact, you are wrong; there were sizable populations of gentiles in first century Galilee.

Christian liberals ought to understand that Christianity is not more important that liberalism. Eventually, everything that contradicts liberalism is going to have to be thrown out. The current Archbishop of Canterbury is for women bishops, but against gay ones. In the not too distant future, he will be replaced by someone who is fine with either. It’s not like the trend is hard to distinguish.

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

I mean, duh. Liberalism wants to make the whole world understandable in terms a few simple standards. It can’t handle answers that don’t apply to everything all at once. This means that, in the long run, you won’t be allowed the dhimma. You have to submit. Sorry.

17. Derek Hattons Tailor

@12. The former are contrary to common law, the latter are not. I cannot be locked up for holding opinions which oppose gay marriage or the ordination of women, it is therefore inconsistent (and violates blind justice) to hold institutions to account for holding opinions which individuals are permitted to hold. Unless you take the bizzare position that becoming a Bishop is a promotion, as if joining a religion is analogous to starting a career in insurance.

There was a woman on Radio 4′s Any Questions programme tonight who was quite dreadful and blackmailing on this with the way she argued her case. She was:
Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and member of General Synod.

She was strongly for the ordiantion of female bishops and kicked up such a fuss about the legal rights and equality angle of it.
It really put me against her whole argument.

I have very little time for these weirdo professional religious people though. I really couldn’t care less about their views on anything. The CofE are worse than ”my lot” the Catholics in some ways.
They’re so bloody woolly and liberal.

Vimothy #16: You speak as if any of this were being imposed on the CoE from outside. It isn’t; they’re decisions being made by the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church. Religious institutions always were, are now, and will remain, exempt from ‘liberal’ legislation on discrimination.

Degsy #17: What on earth are you talking about? Burning of heretics and marriage at 12 are both part of the common law tradition, hence why we used to allow them both. They’re prohibited by *statute*, which is the opposite of common law. And advocating that the law should be changed to allow the burning of heretics and to allow marriage at 12 is completely legal, although would get you some funny looks and probably derail one’s teaching career.

Are you saying that the Church should change its doctrine to oppose everything that is prohibited by statute, but not things that are merely socially unacceptable?

20. The XYZ Line

John @ 19:

“You speak as if any of this were being imposed on the CoE from outside. It isn’t; they’re decisions being made by the bishops, clergy and laity of the Church. Religious institutions always were, are now, and will remain, exempt from ‘liberal’ legislation on discrimination.”

I wouldn’t be so sure of that if I were you. Just look at the attitudes displayed in the debate quoted here:

http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/women-bishops-sir-tony-baldry-responds.html

I was going to respond by saying that Christians should know that there are causes and then there are causes. But by way of a neat bit of synchronicity, after reading John’s comment, I turn to the Guardian’s homepage and the first thing I see is,

* * * *

Church under pressure to vote again

Equalities minister Maria Miller says CofE must reform and ‘act quickly’ to reflect majority view on female bishops

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/23/maria-miller-church-female-bishops

* * * *

From the story itself:

“She adds: “I think it’s extraordinary that the church seems to have ended up in a situation where a vote that was taken doesn’t seem to be reflective of the overwhelming view of the members of the church.”

“Miller, echoing previous comments by David Cameron, said it was up to the church to tackle its internal problems, urging it to examine the “procedures and processes” which, she said, led to a result which did not “reflect the majority will”.

“There has been criticism that the laity in the synod does not reflect the true state of church feeling. The deanery synods of a diocese choose lay representatives to the General Synod – the church governing body – by formal election using the single transferable vote. Critics say these elections are marked by apathy.

“Miller said: “Obviously, it’s for the Church of England to run its own procedures and processes, but I hope that they have heard, loud and clear, the strength of feeling on this, and that it acts quickly.”

“A spokesman for Welby, the bishop of Durham, who is to take over from Rowan Williams as the archbishop of Canterbury next year, said on Friday that the bishop would be replying “in support” of a meeting with MPs and Lords to discuss ways of moving forward with the issue. The suggestion, made by Sir Tony Baldry, the Tory MP who speaks on behalf of the church in the House of Commons, came after David Cameron urged the church to “get with the programme”, while insisting parliament had to “respect individual institutions … while giving them a sharp prod”.

“For some MPs, however, that is not enough. They have called on parliament to force the church to act by removing its exemption from equalities legislation or by calling into question the future of the 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords.

“The government wants the issue of women bishops to be revisited as quickly as possible…”

The whole thing almost defies comment.

The Church voted, and came to a decision. However, everyone knows that it came to the wrong decision. It needs to go back and vote again until it comes to the right one.

The whole thing almost defies comment.

The Church voted, and came to a decision. However, everyone knows that it came to the wrong decision. It needs to go back and vote again until it comes to the right one.

Those in favour of Women bishops
House of Bishops – 94%
House of Clergy – 77%
House of Laity – 64%
Those opposed to Women bishops
House of Bishops – 6%
House of Clergy – 23%
House of Laity – 36%

The minority rules. They were 2-3% off electing women bishops, in one single house, it hardly constitutes a ‘sure result’.

Obviously, it’s for the Church of England to run its own procedures and processes, but I hope that they have heard, loud and clear, the strength of feeling on this

Vimothy: obviously you have every right to keep on being a paranoid eejit stealing the language of victimisation and applying it to privileged groups. But I wish you wouldn’t.

My last paragraph does not imply that you are being compelled by law to stop being a paranoid eejit.

25. Robin Levett

@vimothy passim:

43 of 44 dioceses voted for the measure that was voted for by all three houses of Synod last week; 42 of them by tthe encessary 2/3rds majority in all three houses. Overall, the laity in those synods voted 1,664 to 489 in favour. Unfortunately, the House of Laity had been packed by the evangelicals playing politics, and as a result the House of Laity, failing to represent the feelings of the laity in the country as a whole, only voted 64% in favour.

http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1385911/gs%201847%20-%20report%20by%20the%20business%20committee%20on%20the%20article%208%20reference.pdf

You too, Robin? It’s hard to tell if this is funny, or just sad.

27. domestic extremist

If God exists, what stops her omnipotence from tweeting that she is seriously put out, and male supremacists can expect consequences beyond the grave if they don’t have a rethink? And if she doesn’t exist, what’s the point of bishops of either sex?

28. Robin Levett

@vimothy #26:

It’s hard to tell if this is funny, or just sad.

Well, you’re not making anyone laugh…

Although there’s no reason why it can’t be both, I suppose.

If we ignore the shabby attempts at rationalisation being made here, what we have is this:

A body of people took a vote on some decision. Since they possess strange and rather quaint notions about the process of voting, they decided on the proportions needed to carry the vote in advance. (Can you imagine!)

Then, an outcome was decided. But it was the wrong decision. So another body (the state; the people on Twitter who drive the news cycle nowadays; etc) told ‘em to go back and decide again–and this time, reach the right decision. If necessary, change the majority needed to get this thing through. Do you see? Because what’s the point in voting if you’re not going to reach the right decision?

Now, I’m a student of economics, not political science, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something not quite right about this. I understand that the Will of the People must be obeyed, but doesn’t the idea of agreeing on a mechanism to reach a decision beforehand imply that that’s the mechanism you’re going to use? If in fact, the decision has already been made, why not say so outright?

Call me old fashioned, but making them vote again rather makes a mockery of the whole process. I mean, doesn’t it? Indeed it does–and perhaps that’s the point.

30. Robin Levett

@vimothy #29:

Oddly, the General Synod does have a process allowing them to vote again on a topic. It’s almost as if those setting up the voting system realised that there might be occasions when voting again, quickly, might be appropriate – such as where a measure that has been approved overwhelmingly in the country, by all three parts of the church as a whole, passes all three houses of the General Synod, but fails narrowly in one house to reach the requisite majority.

Do you really have a problem with General Synod being encouraged to use its own procedures in furtherance of the clear will of the Church as a whole?

31. Robin Levett

@vimothy:

And, while we’re at it, remind me of your view on holding another in-out referendum on Europe?

We should only hold a referendum on Europe if it will produce The Right Answer. That’s the whole point of voting, isn’t it?

33. Derek Hattons Tailor

@18 As a kid I was taken to a “progressive” C of E service where some smiley, ginger, bearded git with a guitar and a John Lennon complex and his acolytes, who looked like backing singers at a Fleet wood Mac concert did the whole happy clappy guitar and tambouriney thing and I though – this isn’t religion, this is shite. Putting something in an art gallery doesn’t make it art.
If you’re gonna have a religion it should inspire some sort of emotion, even if it’s guilt, fear and self-loathing.

@32

We should only hold a referendum on Europe if it will produce The Right Answer. That’s the whole point of voting, isn’t it?

Well had the Tories and Lib Dems not managed to reach agreement to a coalition a second election in 2010 was likely…

Oddly, the General Synod does have a process allowing them to vote again on a topic.

That’s interesting–in the papers only a few days ago, they were saying that there couldn’t be another vote for five years. Perhaps they were mistaken. Perhaps it would be the case usually, but this is a special situation, where the Church is really “out of step” with the rest of country, and, since being in step with the rest of the country is what the Church is all about, this should decide the matter. Things might have to be done differently. Clearly, the situation is ambiguous, but we have to trust that the Church will stop “playing politics” and make The Right Decision for the good of its flock. And the rest of us, of course.

It’s almost as if those setting up the voting system realised that there might be occasions when voting again, quickly, might be appropriate – such as where a measure that has been approved overwhelmingly in the country, by all three parts of the church as a whole, passes all three houses of the General Synod, but fails narrowly in one house to reach the requisite majority.

Failing narrowly is still failing. Succeeding narrowly is still succeeding. That’s what it means to have a vote. If you’re not going to respect the outcome, then there’s not really any need to bother with a vote in the first place.

When you hold a vote and say, “a two thirds majority in all three houses will carry the vote,” and then, when you don’t achieve it, go back and say, “oh, yeah, scratch that, a two thirds majority is not needed; all we actually needed was less than we eventually got,” only a total sucker would fail to recognise it for what it is.

Do you really have a problem with General Synod being encouraged to use its own procedures in furtherance of the clear will of the Church as a whole?

But it’s not in “clear will of the Church as a whole,” is it? We’ve just established that.

Forgetting about the rights and wrongs of the issue of female bishops, I find it very hard to believe that anyone could find the idea of changing the voting mechanism after the fact to produce the outcome we wanted in the first place to be anything other than dishonest. You’re obviously no fool, so presumably you’ve decided that honesty doesn’t matter in these things, that the end justifies the means and in the long run the Church is going to have to get in line with the rest of em and suck it up.

36. Robin Levett

@vimothy #35:

But it’s not in “clear will of the Church as a whole,” is it? We’ve just established that.

Did you even read what I wrote previously? The laity voting in diocesan synods voted nearly 4 to 1 in favour of the measure. The House of Laity in the General Synod clearly did not reflect that majority.

Once again: while we’re at it, remind me of your view on holding another in-out referendum on Europe?

37. Robin Levett

@vimothy #35 (contd):

Forgetting about the rights and wrongs of the issue of female bishops, I find it very hard to believe that anyone could find the idea of changing the voting mechanism after the fact to produce the outcome we wanted in the first place to be anything other than dishonest. You’re obviously no fool, so presumably you’ve decided that honesty doesn’t matter in these things, that the end justifies the means and in the long run the Church is going to have to get in line with the rest of em and suck it up.

For the moment, I’ll ignore the allegation of dishonesty, bearing in mind its source.

You really should inform yourself better before mouthing off.

A given General Synod cannot generally vote again on a measure in the same form as one which has been rejected; but there is a procedure allowing them to do so:

The consequence of the “no” vote of terminating any further consideration of the draft legislation means that it will not be possible to introduce draft legislation in the same terms until a new General Synod comes into being in 2015, unless the ‘Group of Six’ (the Archbishops, the Prolocutors and the Chair and Vice Chair of the House of Laity) give permission and report to the Synod why they have done so.

(From http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2012/11/general-synod-rejects-draft-legislation-on-women-bishops.aspx)

Can you offer any reason why the Group of Six should not give permission, given the contrast between the vote of the laity in diocesan synods (in Parliamentary parlance, a landlside victory for the measure) and its vote in General Synod? Other than “because they didn’t pass it the first time” – which of course is the only reason why permission is required in the first place, so cannot be a sufficient reason for refusing permission.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Jason Brickley

    Could the Bishops vote be a setback for the Church of England’s (relative) liberal feminism? http://t.co/CzdgPDfu

  2. Macaulay

    Could the Bishops vote be a setback for the Church of England’s (relative) liberal feminism? http://t.co/CzdgPDfu

  3. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Could the Bishops vote be a setback for the Church of England’s (relative)… http://t.co/U7QGTgH8

  4. Benjohn Barnes

    Intelligent & worth a read: http://t.co/rgL2bvED – it was "regular church goes", not clergy & bishops that voted aginst women bishops.

  5. Sunny Hundal

    It were the "regular church goers", not clergy or bishops that voted aginst women bishops http://t.co/Jm4BpwmR – says @johnb78

  6. Peter Bolton

    It were the "regular church goers", not clergy or bishops that voted aginst women bishops http://t.co/Jm4BpwmR – says @johnb78

  7. Martin Grouch

    It were the "regular church goers", not clergy or bishops that voted aginst women bishops http://t.co/Jm4BpwmR – says @johnb78

  8. Gods & Monsters

    It were the "regular church goers", not clergy or bishops that voted aginst women bishops http://t.co/Jm4BpwmR – says @johnb78

  9. Mr. Beeton

    Interesting bit on @libcon re female bishops (=church-goers are bigots, and democracy sucks) http://t.co/TSp1b6nH

  10. Neutron Decay

    It were the "regular church goers", not clergy or bishops that voted aginst women bishops http://t.co/Jm4BpwmR – says @johnb78

  11. Wayne Horridge

    It were the "regular church goers", not clergy or bishops that voted aginst women bishops http://t.co/Jm4BpwmR – says @johnb78

  12. Tony Kennick

    Could the Bishops vote be a setback for the Church of England’s (relative) liberal feminism? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/reQG4opT

  13. Fr Simon Rundell

    http://t.co/1zKKIN0P My laity are lovely. It's just yours which are the problem…

  14. Nädine Daniel

    "@frsimon: http://t.co/nQUuXS1i My laity are lovely. It's just yours which are the problem" Nope we're ok, but don't get a say on Synod reps





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