Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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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.