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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser