When is a bishop not a bishop?

Twenty years after they began ordaining women, Anglicans still haven't taken the final step towards

Twenty years after they began ordaining women, Anglicans still haven't taken the final step towards gender equality.{C}

As you may have heard, the General Synod of the Church of England is debating the vexed issue of women bishops. Or rather, how to make women bishops without splitting the church and causing those Anglicans who don't believe that women can or should become bishops, ever, to leave, either to the Roman Catholic Church or to set up their own breakaway congregations.

The big decision won't be taken until July: this week, the Synod has been debating proposals aimed to protect male clergy who oppose women's ordination from finding themselves under the authority of a female bishop. Rowan Williams, introducing this quintessentially half-baked compromise, spoke today of seeking to respect the "theological integrity" and ensure the "pastoral continuity" of opponents. But his proposal hasn't gone down well with many in the church, who argue that it would make women bishops inferior to their male counterparts; and in any case it doesn't go far enough to satisfy diehard opponents.

Both sides in the debate have displayed the usual Anglican blend of high principle and low politics. It's hard to see how they could be reconciled.

To some, undoubtedly the majority, the continued discrimination against women in the church is a source of scandal and embarrassment. The very phrase "alternative episcopal oversight", used for the procedure that would allow opponents to avoid having to be under the authority of a female bishop, is a tautology. In Greek, "episkopos" means "overseer". A bishop who didn't have full authority in her own diocese would only be half a bishop.

To others, who of course deny that they are in any sense misogynist (even if God is) accepting the episcopal authority of women is against all tradition and Biblical authority. The church, they would argue, doesn't live by the same rules as the secular world, but by the law of God. To argue against women bishops is not to decry gender equality per se, but rather to safeguard the eternal truths that can't be bent to the whim of prevailing fashion.

But there's another tradition in Anglicanism, equally or perhaps more historically grounded, which is that the Church of England represents the nation at prayer. Or at least aspires to do so. The traditionalists' argument presents the church as a largely static body, immune from wider currents in society. But that has never been the case in any Christian church - and especially not in the Church of England. Rather, it has cut its ecclesiastical cloth according to the temper and spirit of the country. The Reformation represented a break with traditional Christianity considerably more radical and far-reaching than the prospect of women bishops. The church once had no problem with slavery and assumed that a hierarchy of races was part of God's plan. True, there never used to be female priests or bishops: but then for centuries there were no female MPs, high court judges or even doctors, so the question didn't really arise.

Many Anglicans fear that any further delay in appointing women as bishops, or even introducing "safeguards" for opponents that would effectively turn women into second-class bishops, would further marginalise the C of E's position in wider society. As Savi Hensman wrote a few days ago, "the widespread perception that Christianity treats women as inferior" is one of the factors that has led to the decline in religious belief and practice in modern Britain. English churches had lost over a million women worshippers since 1989, yet dioceses with a higher proportion of women clergy, the Church of England tended to enjoy more growth or slower decline than the national average.

Look at this another way. If you're not a regular churchgoer, you might not think it matters either way how the Church of England conducts its affairs. Today's vote will attract much less interest than the acquittal of Harry Redknapp on tax evasion charges. Indeed, to most people in the country the only Synod measure likely to affect them directly was the decision yesterday to hike up the fees charged for weddings and funerals.

But the Church of England is not a private club. So long as it remains the established church, so long as everyone in the country is, by default, a member of it (at least in the sense of having the right to take advantage of Anglican marriage and funeral rites), so long as bishops can sit in the House of Lords and vote against the policies of an elected government, so long as it controls a third of the country's schools, how it arranges its affairs ought to concern everyone.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.