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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.