Doing the splits

Like Mr Rochester's first wife, the misogyny and homophobia of the Church of England's factions keep

Pity the poor old Church of England. Desperate in its search for relevance in the face of shrinking congregations and wider public indifference, the Established Church could not have chosen two issues more likely to make it appear institutionally decrepit among those it wishes to proselytise than its perceived discrimination against women and gay people.

Like Mr Rochester's first wife, the misogyny and homophobia of its factions keep leaping out of the attic to scare off decent folk. No use conservative evangelicals and high church Anglo-Catholics insisting the Church's interminable internal rows are all about obedience to scriptural authority and the protection of tender consciences. What the public sees is arcane debates, conducted with a ferocity more in keeping with the 1980s Labour Party than an institution founded on hope and charity.

Although the Church's General Synod in York eventually voted in favour of consecrating female bishops and developing a code of practice to protect those who cannot bear the idea, it did so in defiance of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and a phalanx of bishops who wanted stronger safeguards to protect opponents of the move. There were tears from some of the men, and the Bishop of Winchester - a figure of limited congruence with modern life - denounced the vote as mean-spirited and short-sighted.

These are Anglicans, for goodness' sake, tearing each other apart. If it was some wacky American sect, the rest of us could chuckle and pass by, but this is the Established Church, with a presence in every parish in the country, an institution whose bishops get chosen - ultimately - by the Prime Minister, whose regulations have to get parliamentary approval and whose 26 most senior representatives, including Winchester, sit as of right in the House of Lords.

What has happened in the past few weeks is that the usual compromises that kept a disparate church together have finally come apart at the seams. In Jerusalem a meeting of Anglican conservatives, mainly from equatorial Africa, but also with those in revolt against the supposedly liberal churches of the British Isles and North America and their acceptance of homosexuals, has insisted it will set up a pure, self-selecting organisation, unsullied by the wicked compromises of liberalism. It is called, with touching naivety about the nature of acronyms, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. They are indeed Focas, say their liberal opponents.

The General Synod may be the last body in this country that can seriously debate whether women should have opportunities equal to men's (the Catholic Church, of course, does not have such facilities for debate), chiefly through the prism not of how to help women themselves, but of how to help the men who cannot stand the thought of being liturgically touched by a female bishop.

It is a neat inversion that all the debate in recent years - and the women's ordination issue has been dragging on in palsied fashion for more than three decades - should be about the tender consciences of men who have not hesitated to bully and threaten their fellow communicants to get their own way. If they didn't, they said, they would decamp to Rome, a prospect that many English Catholics view with distinctly mixed feelings. Why should they get an easy passage into the Catholic Church merely because they have fallen out politically with their old one?

When women were first ordained in 1994, about 500 Anglican clergy left the Church, fortified with financial compensation, and Catholics also got the likes of Ann Widdecombe and John Selwyn Gummer. Now more clergy are threatening to leave, many of them already retired.

And it is political. There are some distinctly musty forces here. A couple of years ago I had to ring up Forward in Faith, the high church group opposed to women's ordination, which has kept up a sneering and patronising barrage against the monstrous regiment of female priests. When I announced I was from the Guardian, the voice at the end of the line muttered, "Bloody communist rag."

The anti-women coalition is a curious alliance: the High Catholics, who believe women simply cannot be priests because it is a male ministry - "a woman can no more be a priest than a goat can be a Christian", in the charming words of one former stalwart - and the conservative evangelicals, who insist the Bible tells them that women cannot be in "headship" of any organisation, in church, in business or in the family. Both these groups in the broad church of Anglicanism otherwise have so little in common that they would get the vapours if forced to attend each other's services.

The same goes for the gay debate. In Jerusalem, African evangelicals teamed up with the conservative Archbishop of Sydney (a man who won't have female priests in his diocese) and smells-and-bells American Episcopalians, rather higher than the Pope, leading an insurgency against their Church's socially liberal leadership. (In the United States the Episcopal Church has had women bishops since the late 1980s, and now even has a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.)

These are marriages of convenience, aimed at wresting the Church in their particular direction and fuelled by fear that the battle might be lost. If only the outside world would see things their way, congregations would flood back. There is another view: "We have a special relationship with the cultural life of our country and we must not fall out of step with this if we are not to become absurd and incredible." Words written by one Rowan Williams - otherwise known as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Stephen Bates was the Guardian's religious affairs correspondent from 2000-2007 and is the author of "A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality" (Hodder, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’