Leader: The Church needs to change

It is unrealistic to expect the Church of England to keep up to date with fluctuations in social and cultural mores. That is neither its ambition nor its purpose. As a religious institution it is rightly concerned with immutable moral and spiritual values. There is, however, always a danger that caution in the face of change becomes stubborn refusal to admit error or redress injustice.

That is plainly the case with the General Synod’s decision not to approve the ordination of women as bishops of the Church. In reality, only the lay portion of the Synod failed to approve the change, and by a slim margin. A clear majority of existing clergymen voted in favour but, thanks to an arcane system of governance, the principle of equality – one that is no more inherently modern and newfangled than any other moral imperative recognised by Christianity –was rebuffed. There are, of course, theological and scriptural formulations that can demonstrate how bishops ought to be men; the same texts can be interpreted to show the opposite view. It is in the nature of religious belief that people begin with a position of faith and argue from that point, sooner than they examine their preformed opinion and change it. Yet religious minds can change over time. Without that prospect, there would be no progress – and without hope of progress and renewal, the Church is condemned to suffocate slowly on arid dogmas.

The choice of that arid path is cause for more than passing regret, even to non-believers. The established Church is embedded deeply in our constitution. Its bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords and pass judgement on national legislation. It would be morally, socially and politically intolerable for any comparable institution to affirm a blanket refusal of women’s equal right of participation in national life. The Church is not only misguided in this matter, it has a public duty to change.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?