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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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.