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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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.