After a 12-year legal process, the General Synod, legislative body of the Church of England, voted this Tuesday against the appointment of female bishops by only six votes. The process, which requires a two third majority in each of the three houses to pass a measure, was cut just short by a majority of 64% in the House of Laity. The outcome has been met with great disappointment from both current and former leaders within the Church. It has disheartened campaigners, and left Christians taking to their keyboards and voicing their dismay via Twitter. The ruling is also a devastating blow that effects the very fabric of British society and everyone in it.
It was 1992 when the Synod approved the ordination of women as priests, yet twenty long years later the motion in favour of female bishops fails to go through. Commentators have pinned blame on faults in the legislation itself, suggesting it was unclear and would have not been voted down if it had remained in the form of earlier drafts. Claims have also been made that the more traditional and conservative wing of the General Synod is too often represents the views of the Church of England as whole. This is reflected in the shock from many members of the Church, eligible to vote or otherwise, who seemed to presume the vote would pass this time around. The ruling comes at an interesting point in the reshuffle of the Church of England too, as both outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury (principle leader of the Church of England) Rowan Williams (pictured) and the incoming Justin Welby were outspoken in their support for the change.
So, why was the legislation rejected, and what are the repercussions? Let’s start with the first. Together 4ward is a campaign that urged voters in the Synod to vote against legislation allowing the ordination of female bishops. In promotional videos on the website, the group claim:
“the vote this month is not about whether you’re for or against women bishops, it’s about how inclusive we want to be in what it is that we do.”
Although this statement seems rather contradictory in terms, Together 4ward is arguing for a united Church wherein those that feel they cannot accept women bishops for theological reasons are not forced out. This seems to suggest that some voters against the motion were voting not according to the theological reasons such as varying interpretations of the Bible held by different denominations of the Church, but in order to uphold the right itself to these differences. However placing importance on the unity of individuals within the Church seems dangerous ground to traverse on this particular issue. All interests of this version of unity seem less relevant when considering whether a person can adopt a role within the Church depending on the uncontrollable factor of their gender.
Is this decision an instance of the Church as an institution failing to uphold legal rights against discrimination, for which they should be prosecuted? It would appear that qualified women denied the possibility to become bishops solely because of their gender is a clear case of employment discrimination. But the picture, of course, is never so simple with religious matters. The British government has decided that, although displeased, they will not intervene by use of equalities legislation to force the Church to change its rules. As it stands, the Church is exempt from equalities and employment legislation meaning that women are not able to sue the Church of England for discrimination in the workplace.
Then what does the outcome mean for Christians? For the women’s movement in the UK? For everybody in the UK? The reaction to this decision seems to firmly make the point that the Church of England has put itself firmly out of touch with the views and priorities of wider secular society. The church seems to be moving backward, becoming embarrassing and antiquated, and quickly losing any relevance. The nature of the relationship between the Church of England and British society as a whole means it’s just not possible to shrug off the disappointing decision as inconsequential religious tosh. The argument that political matters should be kept apart from religious ones holds far less credit since 26 bishops of the Church sit in the House of Lords, the second chamber of the UK Parliament, which directly affects the making and shaping of laws. We now have a continued guarantee that 0 of these 26 will be female. Prime Minister David Cameron has made frequent mention in addresses to the UK as a ‘Christian country’ and the path to improved morality being aided by a return to Christian values. Faith schools, many of them Christian, make up a large percentage of the most successful schools in the state sector. I imagine there must be a difficulty directing religious teaching within a faith school to girls who know that they will not be able to strive towards a position of authority within the church, should they want to.
There are several things to take away from the Church of England’s current situation. It is important to note that before this legislation went through, the Church was seen by much of the UK as a positive cultural influence, even for the non-religious. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is a widely recognisable, well liked and respected figurehead. The large majority of churchgoers and people who identify as Christian are progressive and non-traditionalist; after all, it was twenty years ago when women were ordained as priests, which is why the outcome of Tuesday’s decision was met with such shock and dismay. But now that the decision has been made, and won’t have the opportunity to be overturned for five more years, the Church of England is looking likely to face a lot more criticism from outside sources and divisions from within, that it looks like it may struggle to counter.
Written by Laura Kent