The Church of England only has itself to blame over women bishops fiasco

With more delays likely, it's already a byword for doublethink and procrastination.

Rowan Williams spoke on Sunday of "a corner into which the church has backed itself and out of which we are trying to get." He needn't have been so modest. The corner to which he was referring was created by himself and his fellow bishops when they inserted an unexpected new clause into legislation for women bishops after it had already been passed by the overwhelming majority of Church of England dioceses, but before it could be debated by the General Synod, which is currently meeting in York. 

The bishops' aim may have been to reassure diehard opponents of the change that they would still have a place in a church that fundamentally disagreed with their stance. The most significant effect of the clause, however, was to antagonise supporters of women bishops so much that many threatened to vote against the legislation rather than see women appointed on terms they considered "second class". Opponents of the change welcomed the amendments, which would give parishes the right to be looked after by a male bishop who shared their views about the ordination of women, but not sufficiently to persuade most of them to vote for it.

It now looks increasingly likely that no decision will be made either way, after the Synod's steering committee adopted a motion to adjourn the debate until November, by which time the bishops may have been persuaded to withdraw their amendments. This would be a success for the campaign group Women and the Church (WATCH) which has collected 5,000 signatures for a petition demanding the postponement. It would also be a humiliation for the bishops. But it would also a huge anti-climax, and it won't do much for the image of a church already a byword for doublethink and procrastination. Four months may not be long when set against almost two thousand years of Christian history, or even the twelve years that have passed since the Church began the process that was supposed to end with the consecration of the first female bishop next year or the year after. But it creates an impression of disarray at the top and factionalism lower down, an impression that may not be so far from the truth.

The problem stems, ultimately, from a deep-seated but unrealisable commitment to unity, if not of heart then at least of body. You might think that no compromise is possible between those who regard the failure of the Church of England to have women bishops is an embarrassing case of institutionalised sexism and those who believe that the Bible, or church tradition, forever rules it out. But this is a church that prides itself on being broad and non-dogmatic and has a peculiar horror at the idea of splits. It's a family that wants to stay together, even if it doesn't always pray together. In a very real sense, as clerics like to say, it wants to have its cake and eat it.

For Williams, the dilemma must be especially acute. He personally supports women bishops, and passing the legislation would make a fitting legacy for his tenure at Canterbury, now entering its final months. But time and again he has subordinated his private convictions – some would say principles – to the goal of keeping the Church of England, and the wider Anglican communion, in one piece. He was in typically ambivalent mood on Friday, telling bishops and clergy that he "longed to" see women wearing mitres, indeed that the Synod needed "to proceed as speedily as we can" towards a conclusion. But he equally "longed" to see provision for those Anglicans who hadn't yet accepted (and probably never will) the creation, or indeed theological possibility, of women as bishops. He is now discovering, perhaps not for the first time, where such irreconcilable longings can lead.

To a public uninterested in theological niceties, the question is a simple one: why on earth has it taken the Church of England so long to appointing women as bishops? When there were no female politicians, judges or police officers it was uncontroversial to assert that God reserved leadership roles for men. To say that now amounts to a claim, however fancily dressed up, that God is a sexist. 

Many inside the church agree. The C of E's glacial progress on the issue also puts it out of step with many of its sister churches. The fact is that there have been Anglican women bishops for many years now. Not in England, obviously, but in the USA, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Barbara Harris was consecrated as a bishop in Massachusetts as long ago as 1989. Around half of Anglican provinces allow for women bishops, although only a minority have got round to appointing any. The Scandinavian churches through which the Church of England is in communion via the Porvoo agreement all have women bishops, too.

This is not about the Church of England being radical or unilaterally jettisoning 2,000 years of Christian tradition. Rather, it's a story, repeated often in its history, of a church slowly and reluctantly adapting itself to the society of which it remains, at least constitutionally, an integral part. It will get there eventually; it always does, after exhausting all the other possibilities.

 

Rowan Williams will be hoping to pass the legislation before retiring as Archbishop of Canterbury later this year. Photograph: Getty Images
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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition