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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder