Saturday, November 24, 2012

Women Bishops - Some confusion

As a Catholic, I'm not really best placed to comment on the CofE's recent women bishops debate. I believe in a centralised Church, with authority centred in the Magisterium and the Holy Father. I am confused as to why when your theological experts, your men (and women) of prayer of apparently consecrated and sacramental standing believe you should take a decision on a moral issue then the laity are not prepared, or obliged, to follow. I believe that matters of faith and morals are absolute, not relative, and am perplexed by the idea that such matters should be put to a vote. Simply put: if the CofE believes women can be priests, then why not bishops? Christ, after all, established the episcopate before the priesthood. More frankly, if you accept that women in the priesthood is possible then surely it is just point blank discrimination to allow others with whom you are in communion to avoid them. Anglicanism is not a set of beliefs to which I subscribe - and I don't subscribe because being a member of the CofE is intellectually barking. Doubtless many think the same of me and my Catholicity.

But, as I said, I'm not best placed to comment on it. I have a right to do so, however, as a thinking human being, and as a citizen in a country where the CofE is an established church and their bishops sit in a chamber of parliament. I stop short of wanting to legislate on it, however - and I find even the voicing of such a prospect (by Ben Bradshaw, Chris Bryant and others) thoroughly unnerving.

As a country we followed such a practice for centuries, imprisoning and exiling clergymen through the Acts of Uniformity, excluding non-conformists from public life through the Test Acts and legislating against 'popish' practices until the end of the 19th century. As a fellow alumnus of Mansfield College, Comrade Bryant should know the effects of this course well. We decided that this was wrong - that the state had no right to impose on the religious consciences of the members of any denomination. Any such legislation now would be a colossally retrograde step.

What would legislation say? Would it enshrine the discriminatory practices of having a dual structure within the CofE for those who accept women and those who do not? What about the issue of 'taint'? Would evangelicals and 'Catholic' wings get separate or similar structures? Would it be done in dialogue with the churches with whom the CofE are in communion or simply unilaterally?

I suspect that the proposers have no such thoughts in mind - women can be bishops and that would be that. eminently logical, I think - but many Anglicans would not. This would force laity and clergy away from the church they love and believe in, away from the communities that they are members of and the buildings and public spaces that are historically theirs. This is not right. Whether the question is one of politicking or evangelising, open debate, pressure, persuasion and (gulp) prayer are better than forcing the beliefs of the majority onto the minority.

The principle of such legislation, however, cannot logically stop at the CofE, and not just on this one issue. I (and I suspect many of the MPs who talk about such proposals) would not appreciate the idea of gender quotas in the House of Commons, where the absence of any bar on women standing for almost 100 years has failed to produce a representative house. As a better analogy, perhaps we should legislate on the internal processes of political parties especially when the closed list system for EU elections has produced only 31% female MEPs, when no party professes a conscientious objection to women holding such office. Why not legislate to fix this, when political parties have so failed to get their houses in order? It is not just because the imposition of such a structure restricts human rights to conscience and religious freedom, but also because the CofE has the right to its own internal processes.

I share the outrage of many politicians that the issue of considering giving prisoners the vote is apparently to be imposed on the UK from the ECHR - an outside organisation that believes we act immorally in not doing so and are depriving citizens of a human right. (At least I would share the outrage if the issue was that black and white). It's hard to maintain this stance if you think the CofE should be treated in the same way.

That said, it seems that the internal processes of the CofE will work it out and women bishops will become a reality in the near future, which proves the point exactly. Legislation will not come to pass on the matter - but the idea that it is a serious point of debate is worrying for the religious settlement which we have had for almost a century. The attitude itself affects not just the CofE and those of religion and faith but anybody who wishes to hold an opinion even mildly away from a liberal cultural norm. One can derive hope from the robust condemnation of the apparent actions of Rotherham Council in the past 24 hours from all major parties. I can't help but think, however, that the kneejerk vitriol directed toward the CofE by those who do not even accept the basic tenets of religion, let alone the peculiarities of that strand ignores the core of kindness and morality that drives the day-to-day life of most Anglicans, no matter what their opinion on women in the episcopate. If women's consecration were UKIP membership, to undermine synod's decision would be to take away their foster child.