Could the vote to veto the appointment of women bishops this week spell the end of the Church of England as we know it? The government calls for action but will it force the Church to change?
"I am ashamed to be a part of the Church of England. The suicidal stupidity of voting against female bishops has further discredited an organization that has been hemorrhaging credibility for years," wrote Giles Fraser, in his Guardian column, following the Synod's final vote on Tuesday.
Fraser is the Parish priest at St Mary's, Newington church in London and used to be the Canon Chancellor of St Paul's cathedral until he resigned over the church's policy towards the Occupy protestors camped outside St Paul's in the winter of 2011. In a video statement, he went on to call the veto "utterly disastrous" claiming it would, "release poison not only into the church, but I think, wider, into our whole polity."
A long process
The argument over the role of women within the Church of England has been rumbling since 1966. But in what seems to be an antiquated process, things take time in the Church. It took more than 20 years for the first women to be ordained deacons in 1987, and wasn't until 1994 that women weere ordained priests. In 2000, the issue of women bishops was considered. Twelve years later, the issue came before the Synod.
A state of confusion
The legislation finally passed both the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, but it was the third house, the House of Laity - made up predominantly of elected lay people within the Church - that blocked the final vote. As a "disappointed" Rowan Williams hands over to Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, he leaves the church in a state of confusion.
Williams says the Church must "keep talking", but after 50 years of debate, perhaps the time for talking is over. Prime Minister David Cameron certainly thinks so, as he called for the Church to "get on with it" and "get with the program," the program being one of female emancipation and equality, something that the rest of the world has been pursuing for some time.
The issues here are complicated though. The Church of England is part of the establishment. The Queen is the head of the Church, but since 1970 it has been largely self governing. Without passing a bill, or changing something, government calls mean very little, as Williams put it, "This is the process we [the church] have got, and so we have to find a way to work within it."
Fraser thinks differently, though: "It looks like the church is now stuck; and I actually don't think there is a way of sorting this out," he says. He wonders if the government, whilst probably shying away from full disestablishment, would think about revoking the Equalities act exemption from the church. But the much anticipated statement from Maria Miller, the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, who is in charge of the Equalities act, didn't come on Thursday. Instead, the department sent this statement:
“It is for the Church itself to decide whether it will appoint women bishops and, if so, what arrangements are necessary to support those who cannot accept this change.”
They explained that revoking schedule nine of the equality act would, by extension, apply to all religions and would put the British government in a direct battle with the Roman Catholic Church and any religion with single sex clergy. The government's statement read:
"We respect the independence of religious organizations, especially the Church of England in its role as the established church within this country, and therefore have no plans to change the Equality Act in that way."
The minority wins
In fact, the majority seems to be in favor of equality. 42 out of 44 dioceses, the House of Clergy and the House of Bishops voted in favour of female bishops. Fraser went further, pronouncing that "we have a preposterous system in the General Synod - it's been hijacked by a very small organized deeply conservative minority, and it is actually affecting us well beyond the Church of England. "It's a very dangerous time," he concluded.
Church and state
The MP Sir Tony Baldry, who represents the Church in the House of Commons, expressed the government's disappointment and desire to see a resolution allowing women to become bishops. He said that the issue "could not be parked for the next couple of years." He went on: "It is perfectly possible for a different and amended measure to be considered by the General Synod."
"Male only" club
Fraser is sick of appeasing this small minority. He writes in his Guardian column that the decisions made on Tuesday go far wider than the Church itself: "This decision represents a scandal that burrows deep into our whole political infrastructure: we now have 26 places in the House of Lords deliberately reserved for a male-only club. Before this, it could have been put down to an accident of history. Now it is deliberate." Indicating that the Church needs to wake up to the reality of equality in the 21st century.
Women feeling 'undervalued'
This is a church which at the moment is not keeping pace with society. The legislation that failed to make the final hurdle was, according to Fraser, already a stretch for liberals who worried that the changes made would create "a special category of second-class bishops just for women."
What England is left with is a church which according to Williams is losing credibility. "Every day we fail to resolve this issue…is a day when our credibility in the public eye is likely to diminish," he said. The Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, has a tough challenge ahead. He has already been asked to meet with MPs and Lords to discuss ways of speeding up the process, but since government has so far resisted passing a bill to force the Church to change, reassurances that there will be "female bishops in my lifetime" sound a little too vague for the politicians at the moment.
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