Has the women bishops vote triggered a bigger crisis for the Church of England?

I have completely lost count of the number of press and blog articles I’ve read on the women bishops vote since last Tuesday.  It feels as if every angle and view has been thoroughly picked apart repeatedly and analysed to death now and yet they still keep coming.  And now I’m going to lob in my own views in just to add to it all.

I’ve read some very thoughtful opinion pieces that have attempted to find a positive way forward and explain things without sensationalising the facts.  On the other hand I’ve read some very biased and confrontational articles that have just stirred up animosity towards those with certain views.  Articles describing the outcome as ‘suicide‘ for the Church of England and describing it as a national embarrassment haven’t been particularly helpful as well as being inaccurate.

The Church of England has faced plenty of struggles over the centuries.  During the period of the Commonwealth from 1649-1660 following the English Civil War its bishops were abolished and its prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, was banned.  Now that’s what I call a real crisis.  Certainly there are plenty of upset and annoyed people both inside and outside of the church who are extremely keen to see the current state of affairs rectified (as they might see it) and women allowed to become bishops ASAP.

As with any form of democracy, those who don’t get what they supported or voted for are going to be disappointed at the very least, but that doesn’t mean the system is inherently flawed.  I’m not convinced that the C of E’s General Synod is needing to receive a complete overhaul as some commentators have suggested.  Its systems might be painfully slow to move, but in time they usually produce the right result.  Maybe there does need to be some time spent considering how members are voted on to it and whether the potential five-year wait until a women bishops motion comes before the Synod again is acceptable.  General Synod isn’t parliament though and we shouldn’t expect it to run in the same way.  If you want to understand more then Jon Marlow provides an excellent summary of how the Synod works and its underlying strengths.

If we want to identify where the failing lies, if there is one, we need to look back to the Synod elections of 2010 where it is recognised that the conservative and catholic wings of the C of E made a successful effort to increase their representation in the House of Laity.  The Church Times reported this back in 2010 and their predictions of the numbers who would vote against women bishops two years later proved to be highly accurate.  Those groups who support the acceptance of women bishops were comprehensively out-maneuvered.  The next round of Synod elections takes place in 2015 and perhaps when that happens those who have felt let down need to take a proactive effort to do something about it if they don’t want to risk going through another painful experience when the next vote comes up.

All that I’ve written so far is an observation.  I still believe if Synod is left to its own devices we’ll end up with women bishops in the near future.  It’s just how long we will have to wait.  What has actually concerned me though, is the response from Parliament to the result.  David Cameron during prime Minister’s question time said that, “I am very clear that the time is right for women bishops; it was right many years ago. The church needs to get on with it and get with the programme.”  What the ‘programme’ is, I assume, is the Church coming into line with equalities legislation.  At least Cameron and Maria Miller, the Equalities minister have both said that it is the C of E’s job to sort itself out rather than having to resort to state interference.  There have been some vocal MPs however who have disagreed with them.

Sir Tony Baldry, Second Church Estates Commissioner, who is responsible for taking questions in Parliament on Church matters and steering Church legislation through the Commons said on Thursday that, “If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”  Labour’s Chris Bryant, himself a former C of E vicar, has called on the prime minister to refuse to allow the current 26 bishops in the House of Lords to take part in the house’s business until women can become bishops.  Shadow Equalities minister, Yvette Cooper said on Question Time that if the C of E is unable to sort itself out the parliament should step in to make it happen.  Perhaps most worrying of all is Frank Field’s tabled ‘Presentation Bill’ which will seek to remove from the statute book the exemptions from equality legislation that the C of E currently enjoys.  Mr Field is well known in Parliament as a Christian and I have admired his work for some time, however this time he is potentially opening a huge can of worms.

As soon as MPs start to tell the Church how to run its business, we are in big trouble.  As former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright wrote in the Times:

“The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

“What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.”

The Church of England’s problem is that it is the established church of this nation.  It is intrinsically tied to the state as it has been since 1689.  On the whole both sides have managed to co-exist peacefully during this time.  Until recently England could genuinely call itself a Christian country.  Parliament and the C of E have on the whole worked towards the same goals basing their legislation on biblical principles.  Where there have been differences such as divorce laws, the C of E has been allowed to follow its convictions for example by not being required to marry divorcees.

The church is most definitely not just another secular organisation.  As N.T. Wright says, it should only follow what it believes to be God’s lead.  Unfortunately as our parliament becomes increasingly illiterate when it comes to religious belief, this fact appears to be getting lost.  If the calls for secular values to be imposed upon the church begin to seriously take hold amongst MPs then the Church of England, I believe for the first time, is going to need to start considering an exit strategy.

Until very recently I’ve been happy with the C of E being the established church, with all it contributes to the public life of the English nation.  It hasn’t interfered with the way those who attend its churches worship, but I’m starting to doubt whether this will continue to be the case.  If equalites legislation is forced on the Church not only will it have decisions such as the appointment of women bishops taken out of its hands, but also the issues of gay marriage and clergy.  Potentially appointments to roles could not be made according to candidates’ beliefs (this has been explored in detail by Bob Morris at Law & Religion UK).  It would most likely drive many people from the C of E who could not stomach such changes.  State control of the church in other countries has not proved to be good for the Gospel and mission.  The church is left impotent and legalistic.  It’s the last thing I would want to see happen here.  Much as I would hate to see it, disestablishment would be the only credible option.

Difficult days lie ahead.  Those who voted down the women bishops legislation may have done so in good faith and I will not dismiss their convictions, but in doing so they may have increased the chances of the decision being taken out of their hands.  I sincerely hope that those in positions of authority both in parliament and the Church of England will see the pitfalls of what potentially lies ahead and I pray that wisdom will win over knee-jerk reactions and legalism.

Perhaps God has chosen this time for the Church to be freed from the bonds of establishment in order to be a more effective and Kingdom centred church or perhaps this is just a wake-up call.  Either way I trust God a lot more than politicians and his church needs to as well and act accordingly.

Categories: Church, Parliament, Theology

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18 replies

  1. An interesting assessment, Gillan: thank you. My view, as you’ll have no doubt gathered from my tweets and blog posts, is that Synod is broken: this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, exposing the inherently flawed nature of both its voting system and its appointment system which (as your fifth paragraph eloquently shows) has allowed a non-representative minority to not only infiltrate Synod but also to block synodical process.

    We’re now in a situation where the C of E is perceived as an institutionally sexist organisation, held hostage to that perception by that minority whose self-serving actions and attitude have brought the Church into disrepute to the point where all these calls for equality legislation to be imposed are emerging. There is something seriously wrong with a Christian organisation that instead of leading the way forward for equity now finds itself facing the threat of coercion. This has ramifications for every area of the Church’s mission: how can we speak out with any moral authority about issues of injustice when we are party to such gross injustice as this, discriminating against half the human race?

    It is a sad time indeed when the “values of the nation” are seen to be higher than the values of the Church; and I’d change one word of Sir Tony’s comment: “If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to refract the values of the nation.” We should be not a mirror to the nation’s values but a prism through which God’s light shines upon those values, exposing the flaws, highlighting the good and offering a rainbow of hope. But where we are now, alas, it’s the flaws of the Church that are exposed and we find ourselves at the wrong end of the rainbow, in the midst of the storm and under a miasma of hopelessness: neither a mirror nor a prism but a broken vessel.

    Dear Bishops, if any of you are reading, please take action. This matter — Sir Tony again — cannot be parked!

    Lord, have mercy.

  2. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Gillan Scott could have written this very helpful post for those who, like myself, wish to be aware of developments within the CoE but who haven’t been able to do so. He is to be commended for having dug into reviews and and published an informative overview. More importantly, in answering his own question Gillan’s sound logic gives due regard to the perilous impact of likely legislative issues and, more appropriately, he closes to suggest major changes may be on the way – which wouldn’t be surprising in view of several prophecies for this year and the near future! So I agree – Church of England: “Wake up and watch out!”

  3. I am always amazed at people who want to belong to an institution that they disagree with. It is like a pacifist joining the SAS.

    The CofE is an institution. It is not, however, “The Church of All Believers”, thank the Lord for that. Women have tried and succeeded to show that they are called by the Holy Spirit to be teachers and leaders of Christ’s church, or churches, as there is no one church. If an the CofE, as an institution, supersedes the will of the Holy Spirit then that will be dealt with by the divine, in the end.

    All institutions are power structures and are run on tradition and power relations. The CofE is no exception to the “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”, which is that the formal organization of bureaucracies inevitably leads to oligarchy, under which organizations originally idealistic eventually come to be dominated by a small, self-serving group of people who achieved positions of power and responsibility, by whatever means. Fear of change and loss of power are the main bedrocks of institutions, however benign the institution.

    Of course change comes about in-spite of the fear and loathing; as you say Gillan, it is possible that the Synod, left to its own devices, will end up with women bishops, eventually. Personally I am sceptical as the CofE [as are other Christian related denominations] is based on the tradition of men over women when it comes to teaching and headship of the Church/denomination in question. I am not bothered or concerned by it as the CofE is an institution that has gained its power and influence by many means – some nefarious in the extreme – and I hope one day will be more Christ orientated than organisational orientated.

    • Two things in particular give me hope, efgd: first, the men leading the C of E are overwhelming in favour of opening their ranks to women; and second, Synod has been intentionally structured to ensure that those in leadership don’t have absolute power — as this situation has demonstrated! As others have pointed out, there’s also an irony here: those who claim allegiance to a male episcopate have overwhelmingly rejected that episcopate’s leadership!

      Unfortunately, at present, that structure is flawed to the point where a minority can hijack proceedings; but that can be fixed, very simply, without compromising on the 2/3 majority principle: a 2/3 overall majority backed by simple majority in all three houses. That prevents a minority in any one house from blocking synodical process but allows for a majority of objectors in any one house to do so.

      • Phil and efgd, your comments are excellent. Those who favour power or tradition over God’s will shouldn’t be let loose at Synod and I desperately hope there are few who fit that mould.

        Phil, your suggestion is so simple and effective that it makes a great deal of sense. I’m surprised I’ve not heard anyone else suggest it. It needs an audience.

  4. “Potentially appointments to roles could not be made according to candidates’ beliefs (this has been explored in detail by Frank Cranmer).”

    It was Bob Morris’s guest post on our blog and I wouldn’t presume to take the credit for his very penetrating analysis. Not my work at all: I merely did the back-end stuff and posted the result.

  5. This is a good post, Gillan. I think I agree with Phil’s suggested fix to Synod voting.

    But there is a certain irony on your argument. It has always been the prerogative of the Sovereign to appoint diocesan bishops, and this has long been based on the advice of the Prime Minister. The church has always been obliged to accept and formally elect the Monarch’s nominee. So it is a bit odd for people now to complain at the PM having his say on who should be a bishop.

    An interesting situation could arise now if David Cameron advised the Queen to appoint a specific woman to an episcopal vacancy. Would the church be obliged by law to accept that appointment? I guess not, because there must be something in the canons to stop the canons being obliged to elect an illegal candidate. But I think Cameron could quite reasonably say that it goes against his conscience to be involved in appointments for which women could not be considered, and so refuse to advise the Queen to appoint any new bishops until women bishops are accepted. And I think that would be a quite reasonable thing for him to do. The church would then have to decide whether to seek disestablishment or accept women bishops – or perhaps both, as I would recommend.

    • Peter, the recommendation only reaches the PM because the Bishops have consulted and produced a credible choice. The PM asks for two names, and then gives them to HM the Queen. Worth mentioning only because your observation might read as if the PM were poring over lists of possibles…

      • LF, I am aware that the PM acts on the advice of the Crown Nominations Commission, which includes bishops and others, and chooses one of the two names put forward to him. I’m not sure if he is legally obliged to take their advice. According to Wikipedia, he is at least permitted to request additional names from them.

        But I was thinking more of a situation where the CNC is at least tacitly working with the PM to nominate a woman, and perhaps provoke a constitutional crisis. I can imagine the PM telling the CNC that they must include at least one woman on their shortlist, and the CNC then giving the PM two official male candidates and unofficially the name of a woman they would consider suitable.

  6. Phil’s suggestion to reform the synodical voting process is interesting. But is the skewed system as is so designed in order to limit the possibility of politically embarrassing schism? A few more lay votes the other way, and the minority would have lost the day… and if they decided to sulk and walk, it wouldn’t be so bad (rather, as an outsider looking in, I’d argue you’d be better off without them). But a 49% losing minority would be a big bunch of splitters.

    • Lee, a 49% losing minority in the house of laity together with a 2/3 majority in the whole synod would imply only around 10% opposed among bishops and clergy. That would suggest a dangerous disconnect in the church between leaders and ordinary members – or else it would confirm that the system for electing the house of laity is seriously broken.

      • Yes. But I wasn’t advocating for Phil’s suggestion. I’m questioning why the voting system is as it is. If what I’ve read is correct, then not all those lay members voting ‘No’ were actually against; but they voted so in order that the (even smaller) minority who won’t countenance the notion of women bishops would not become an isolated fringe. The system would seem to be biased towards cohesion over progression, with the latter rendered glacial. And, hence, the whole edifice becomes more irrelevant – a ‘dangerous’ disconnect between church and society.

        • Lee, the 2/3 majority principle is there to ensure that a simple majority can’t trample a significant minority underfoot. It’s a good principle in my book; but in this case it’s been abused by a non-representative group who have taken improper advantage of their positions by voting according to their personal preferences rather than representatively on behalf of their dioceses.

          From ++Rowan:

          We rightly insist in the Church of England on a high level of consent for certain kinds of change and the failure to secure a two-thirds majority in the House of Laity doesn’t mean that those high levels of consent are necessarily wrong. They do mean that there is a great deal of further work to be done, as I have said. But that sense of a Synod which, for admirable, praiseworthy reasons gives a very strong voice to the minority – that sense of Synod needs some explaining and some exploring if it is not simply to be seen as a holding to hostage of Synod by certain groups. That is part of the explaining we have to do, and we are all, I guess, feeling those uncomfortable questions.


  7. The organised structures are a real problem with regard to how we are perceived and i could not quite believe the decision simply because the thrust of scripture is against it. Amazed as i am i am not at all downbeat. However we feel about it Jesus should remain our focus rather than our sex or sexuality. I am convinced this is happening for a reason.I haven’t been a Christian for very long and the one thing that struck me early on is the sheer diversity of the Christian ”culture”. The overwhelming majority of work goes on despite whosoever wears the pointy hats. The synod is of political interest and so it becomes a political target. Women will still serve Christ regardless of the opportunity to become a bishop, none of us are promised status. Jesus whilst he had authority did not have status nor did the disciples. During 2012 i have worshipped in a Barn, Village hall, pub, school, and outdoor market. We generally had worship, readings, prayer, testimonies as encouragement, bread and wine, the plate covered the hire costs and refreshments. Nobody was excluded. Men and women both performed vital roles and nobody wore ridiculous clothing. All these sessions were led but not with a sense of status but rather the holy spirit. I guess this is how it was done in the early church. Is there a way of getting back to this authentic kind of worship ? Faith working at the grass roots without so much politics. Can we hold ourselves together in faith without a centralised structure which seems to be becoming an albatross. How will we afford these ancient buildings called churches in the future and would the money be better spent in our communities. I think there could be great benefits to separation of church and state,it will probably be forced on us anyway, not least because of the ongoing difficulties around the nature of marriage which will present a major challenge to the organised church in the near future.

    • Thank you Graham, what welcoming (and missionary) worship you are a part of. It is this diversity which is a great strength of the CofE…just as there are plenty of people who love the 1662 services, so it’s possible to hold simplicity in its many forms, and all be a vital part of this faith.

  8. I cannot help thinking that this is one of Gillan’s most significant blogs, which was actually foreseen in last July’s “The Church of England has a lot more to worry about than women bishops”. Now we see the truth behind that more fully. Disestablishment threatens. I would not like to guess which way it will go, or what the consequences might be, either way, for the church and our nation.
    Certainly the General Synod isn’t Parliament. Politicians have the difficult brief of being asked to lead, while remaining accountable, with a constant eye on their popularity ratings. This understandably poses dilemmas of conscience to many Christian MPs. It is not surprising that politicians seek to keep in gear with the wishes of society. But for the church to follow a similar route of conformity is a different matter entirely, no doubt in the face of dwindling public support.
    I totally agree with the quote from the former Bishop of Durham, who says it all. Jesus and the early church were not at all PC. Living out and speaking what they knew to be true, they turned the world upside down. The issue of women bishops happens to be the current flashpoint, but the underlying problem is surely upstream of this. The role of the church should include keeping in gear with the needs of changing society (David Cameron approves of this) but not without upholding the teachings and absolute moral values that Jesus taught. A half-gospel is no gospel at all.
    The unhappy result of the present face-up is that the church loses credibility with both the public and Parliament, while those with a Christian conscience increasingly distrust our politicians.
    Is there a miraculous solution? Looking at the problems, no. But history tells us yes. Britain has seen true life changing Christian revivals before, which swept the nation, including politicians! Unlikely as that may seem today, I believe that the hearts of many are crying out against the anguish of the present times, but simply don’t know where to look. For while society has changed, the problems inherent in human nature haven’t. The Church at large needs to get back to the basics of the gospel, that the Pearl of Great Price (Matt 13:45) might be rediscovered.

  9. Fascinating comments on Gillan’s excellent article: we are all inspired again to keep the faith..
    If however, we do indeed believe that the church is always counter-cultural, then being outside the public judgement on ‘credibility’ is no bad thing. Why? Because this has had the effect of bringing the church onto the front pages? I suggest that this is the moment of truth, when (setting aside the blame and the deep distress) there is a really exciting sense of movement – awakening. Coinciding as it does with +Justin Welby’s arrival, and the yet-to-be-fully-appreciated time of ++Rowan, we are an evolving church. It is a very truly hopeful time.

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