Comment: How long can the laity hold the Church of England ransom on women Bishops?

By Reverend Sally Hitchiner

This week the Church of England is discussing 'Women Bishops'… or as I call them 'Bishops'.

The distinction between the two is important whether or not you’re part of the 1.7 million people who attend CofE services every month. Family values and hints at good Christian morality are often used to thinly veil misogyny and it affects a small but significant number of peerages in the House of Lords that are still only open to be filled by men bishops.

The debate about whether we should have positions reserved for religious figures in the House of Lords is for another day but for now the fact remains, until we have women bishops, women in the UK do not have full political emancipation.

The debate about whether we can have them should have been resolved in 1992 when we collectively decided that the Bible and all that is good in the world dictated that women should be treated equally to men in everything including leadership in the church.

But no, in order to get the motion passed quickly (or even at all) and in order not to push out the vocal minority who were unhappy about the change, we decided to settle for a fudge: the church would have women priests but promised to maintain the existence of those who wanted to go on in blissful ignorance of our existence or be paid off if they felt they had to leave. The Church both ordained me and supported those who said that it is impossible to ordain women. We were the generation of Schrödinger’s priests.

The years passed and even those who were most against women priests found that we’re not so bad and England did not crumble because of us. Then came the rub: the women weren’t happy to be merely tolerated. In 2012 the church did a survey of church goers and found all but 2 of the 44 dioceses were now in favour of women in leadership at every level of the church: everyone but the hardliners had come around. But still the concern not to offend them persisted to hold the rest of the church to ransom.

You may recall, last November we had a vote on the matter. The all-male House of Bishops felt they could do us a favour and bring in women bishops that didn’t quite have the same authority as the male bishops. If a church didn’t want to accept their female bishop they could apply to have a man. The women of the church agreed to this as long as they asked the woman bishop for permission, the same as they do currently for male bishops who they disagree with on this issue.

This wasn’t good enough for the now tiny minority of churchgoers who disagree. They didn’t want to have to acknowledge her existence at all. So the legislation failed to be passed. Not because of the clergy but because of the non-ordained laity. It failed because we believe that the church should be formed equally by representatives of the bishops, the priests and the regular church goers and that for change to come and overturn what we believe is God guiding us so far, it has to have a two thirds majority in each of the three groups.

It passed overwhelmingly in the house of bishops and got through in the house of clergy but fell by just six votes in the house of laity. We were victims of our own democracy; a tiny minority had obtained an unrepresentative number of seats and had been given 50% of the discussion time.

I was there, I felt like the oxygen was being sucked out of the room as the afternoon wore on and the debate became less and less the inclusive institution I recognised from day to day life. I was ordained in the second wave of women priests, the ones who didn’t have to fight their way through, I wasn’t used to this.

Now this week we have picked ourselves up and started the discussion with a new piece of legislation. It has fewer provisions for those who are offended by women bishops and there is a greater sense of certainty that it will succeed.

So why am I still part of the CofE?  Well the truth of the matter is that that debate was not representative of the experience of most people on the ground. The normal day to day existence of priests is working hard in their local communities to empower and to help. We’re encouraging local people in our churches to run soup kitchens, scout groups, debt support and countless other projects, we support families through funerals and spend hours trying to help people fill in forms and apply for grants.

A quarter of regular church goers are engaged in voluntary work in the community outside of the church, without any agenda other than trying to make a positive difference in society. And no one cares if you’re a woman or a man as long as you’re doing it. I don’t think there has been any research on it yet but my experience is that the average church goer in the CofE would not distinguish between male or female, gay or straight. As an institution we just don’t preach in the media what we practice in life.

But I do care about the CofE as an institution. We don’t hurl abuse at female barristers who are still part of an institution that has many sexist traits. While the proportion of women getting PhDs in the UK is roughly equivalent to those who are men, the proportion who are professors drops dramatically. I work for one of the few universities in the UK with a female vice chancellor. I applaud the women who stay in those institutions in order to bring change from within. And to be fair, within just 20 years of women priests being possible it now has women making up about 50% of those ordained as priests. I wish I could say the same about female vice chancellors or MPs.

We have to go through our process of deciding to bring change. I’d be worried if the Church made its decisions in the same way that Topshop does or the House of Commons does. Even if you disagree with them, you’d hope we try to remain true to the things we say we believe in. We’re trying to be a family rather than a corporate business.

It takes time to listen well, to be compassionate to those who disagree with you. Families don’t turn their backs on minorities who disagree, even small minorities. But neither do they let them hold the whole to ransom forever. The reality is the minority who disagree with female bishops will not get their way. Within a few years we will have them, there’s no argument about that. And then we talk more about LGBT rights and maybe even get on to addressing who the companies we’re investing in are investing in. I only wish other institutions had systems that listened to so many people and reflected so consciously about their practices of inclusion.

Reverand Sally Hitchiner is an Anglican priest, university chaplain, interfaith adviser and broadcaster.

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