Female bishops: Not just a matter of tweaking the job description

The Church of England has worldly money, power and influence, so it needs to confront worldly issues like equality.

My memories of Sunday school are generally hazy, but here’s one that stands out: one bright autumn day in the early 1980s, our Sunday school teacher decided to ask us, the children, what we thought our church should be like. I don’t know why she did this. As you’d expect, it was greeted by complete and utter silence, at least until my brother, struck by decidedly non-divine inspiration, decided to raise his hand:

Miss, I think it should be like the Kenny Everett show.                                            

To be fair, I suspect he was thinking of the character Brother Lee Love, so this wasn’t completely out of context. Either way, this proposal was not well-received. Well, Church of England, more fool you. If only you’d listened you’d now be, if not more politically correct, at least more amusing and creative in your use of sexism.

Although raised a Christian, I am not religious (although it’s not for want of trying, given 1. my desire to appear virtuous and 2. my fear of my own mortality). I am nevertheless extremely disappointed by the General Synod’s failure to gain the two-thirds majority required to pass legislation allowing women to be consecrated as bishops. I don’t personally want to be a bishop, nor do I want to interfere with an individual’s right to think sexist thoughts, be they spiritually motivated or otherwise. I do however want institutions to treat people fairly and not to have get-out clauses when it comes to valuing women just as much as men. I realise all this sounds a bit worldly. That’s because it’s meant to.

Writing in the Telegraph, trainee chaplain Jemima Thackray frets that the campaign for women bishops was undermined by the use of worldly feminist arguments which “sounded too much like a contrived government initiative to get women into the boardroom” (urgh!):

But the fact is that bishops aren’t normal workplace bosses, they are meant to be servants. […] Perhaps the campaign for women bishops would have benefitted from swapping the feminist rhetoric for a similar recognition that the authority of being a bishop is not a right or a reward but in fact a responsibility to serve others and a space to exercise God-given gifts.

The problem with this, of course, is that for so many of us affected it’s a nonsense. It doesn’t matter what spin you put on it. It’s all very well to claim that being bishop “is not a right or a reward but in fact a responsibility to serve others” (perhaps one could employ an advertising agency to develop some suitably manipulative slogans based on this self-serving line). This isn’t an argument about job descriptions or indeed power. It’s about respect for fellow human beings, whether they are religious or not. The General Synod vote insults all women. This should not go unchallenged.

The Church of England claims money, power and influence yet retreats into squeamishness about “worldly” issues whenever its own prejudices are challenged. It’s a tremendously flexible means of circumventing the moral strictures by which the rest of us have to live. Voluntary aided C of E schools can prioritise places for children based on the religion of their parents or they can choose not to. It depends, not on the word of God, but on how they wish to shape the “culture” that surrounds them. Perhaps in some cases it’s better not to prioritise religion -  too many places for devout Polish immigrants, not enough for “true” C of E types, regardless of whether they attend a church or not. The right to discriminate – defended, without irony, on the grounds that to remove it would constitute discrimination – makes it possible to do anything. Keep out the godless. Keep out the immigrants. Keep out the women. Do whatever you have to and claim to be adhering to what your faith demands when those you exclude beg to differ.

This is not humility or servitude. It’s passive aggression and manipulation and it needs to be confronted, even if silencing terms such as “militant secularism” are thrown back in the faces of those who dare to speak out. And to my brother, I am sorry. I am sorry that all those years ago I told on you and that Dad was cross because he didn’t want people at church to know we watched the Kenny Everett Show. You were the better person. I now long for a church with massive hands, stupid puns and Cleo Roccos. A church with sexism that identifies itself as such rather than hiding behind slippery, self-pitying lies.

This post first on Glosswitch's blog here

Marie-Elsa Bragg, Assistant Curate, embraces a collegue after the Church of England's draft legislation approving women bishops failed to pass. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Hilary Benn has been sacked. What happens now?

Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Hilary Benn, effectively challenging his critics to put up or shut up.

Hilary Benn been sacked from the shadow cabinet, following an article in the Observer reporting that the former shadow foreign secretary had told Labour MPs he would challenge Jeremy Corbyn should Corbyn lose the vote of confidence in his leadership that the PLP are due to discuss on Monday.

Anti-Corbyn plotters are convinced that they have the numbers to pass the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership. Passing that motion, however, would not formally trigger either Corbyn’s resignation or a leadership challenge.

The word from Corbyn’s inner circle is that he would remain in post even if he were to lose the confidence vote, and dare his opponents to collect the 50 names they would need to trigger a leadership challenge.

Should that come about, Corbyn’s allies are certain that they would triumph over whoever ran against him. As one senior source said “they lost really badly in September and that’s not gonna change”.

Labour’s rebels are convinced that they have the numbers necessary to trigger a formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

What happens next is fraught as the relevant clause in Labour’s rulebook is unhelpfully vague: 

“ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

The question that no-one is certain of the answer to: whether the challenged leader would have to seek nominations as well or if they would be on the ballot as by right. My understanding is that the legal advice that Corbyn’s critics have is that Corbyn would not automatically have a place on the ballot. But Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer who writes regularly for the New Statesman, looked over the clause for us and believes that he would.

More important than the legal basis, though, is what the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which would rule on whether Corbyn had to seek nominations to stand, believes.

Although Corbyn has received the backing of 12 of Labour’s affiliated general secretaries, a well-placed source tells me that they are confident the NEC would rule that Corbyn will need to seek nominations if he is to stand again.

But control over the NEC is finely balanced, and could shift decisively towards Corbyn following this year’s elections to the NEC; one reason why Corbyn’s opponents are keen to strike now.

In that situation, Corbyn’s allies believe they can secure the 50 nominations he would need – the threshold has been raised due to a rule change giving Labour members of the European Parliament the same nominating powers as their cousins in Westminster – thanks to a combination of ideological support for Corbyn and pressure from the party’s grassroots. Senior sources believe that once Corbyn reached shouting distance of 50 nominations, the bulk of the shadow cabinet would quickly fall in line. Another estimates that the “vast majority” of the PLP accept Corbyn requires more time and that the plotting is the result of “a rump” of MPs.

But Corbyn’s critics believe that the European result, which saw Labour voters reject the party line in large numbers, has left Labour MPs with large majorities in the party’s ex-industrial seats more spooked by their voters than by their activists, putting them in the same group as those MPs with small majorities. (The two groups who currently pose the biggest danger to Corbyn are MPs who are old enough to be eligible to collect their pension at or before the next election, and MPs with majorities of under 2,000.) 

Who's right? Much depends on the disposition of Labour's 20 MEPs. Prior to Britain's Brexit vote, they were believed to be the most sensitive to the concerns of the party's activists, as Labour members vote on the order of the party's list, making anti-Corbynites vulnerable. Now all 20 MEPs are out of a job at, or before, the next European election regardless, the question is whether they decide to keep Corbyn off the ballot, or try to curry favour with Corbyn's supporters in the membership prior to making a bid for seats at Westminster. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.