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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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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