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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.