Women bishops: time for some C of E self-examination

By Savi Hensman
November 21, 2012

General Synod’s rejection of a motion allowing women to be bishops has badly damaged the Church of England’s credibility. It's time for some wider reflection and self-examination.

In ancient times, a woman may have anointed Jesus, and women been chosen as the heralds of the resurrection. Paul may have proclaimed that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male and female. But two thousand years later, when society has moved forward on gender equality, this church still refuses fully to accept women’s ministry, seriously undermining its ability to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all.

Many congregations are caring and inclusive, many clergy dedicated and skilled. In many parishes, spiritual growth is nurtured, parishioners encouraged to recognise the human worth of everyone – men and women, gay and straight, black and white, disabled and non-disabled. And yet, as an institution, the C of E can seem indifferent to injustice and unaware of the impact of some of its actions.

The 'no' vote, despite support for women bishops from the vast majority of diocesan synods, further exposed C of E weaknesses, after an excruciatingly embarrassing thirteen months. In October 2011, the Occupy movement threw the staff of St Paul’s into turmoil. Tensions were exposed between the close relationship of sections of the established church with the rich and powerful, on the one hand, and recognition of the seriousness of the moral issues being raised by protesters, on the other.

In June 2012, the C of E’s excessive reaction to government proposals to introduce equal marriage made it appear obsessed with preventing same-sex couples from achieving the same social recognition as their heterosexual counterparts. In reality there are widely differing views on this issue, and many would be only too glad to see full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, partnered or otherwise, as well as encouragement for committed and self-giving partnerships. Yet few would guess this from official pronouncements.

Revelations around failure to protect children from abuse in Chichester, or ensure justice for survivors, were perhaps the most seriously damaging. There have been guidelines in place for some time, but a haphazard approach to enforcing these and promptly and thoroughly investigating allegations.

While these are different issues, and many Synod members who voted against allowing women to be bishops would deplore failure to act firmly against abuse, there are certain characteristics in common. In particular, many in church leadership tend to give more weight to the concerns of those of higher status in any situation, as well as not wanting to confront uncomfortable realities.

Lack of thorough discussion of theological issues at a grassroots level is another failing, so that insights are not shared between clergy and laypersons and the reasons for particular positions may not be clearly communicated.

Also 'liberal' senior clergy often feel uncomfortable about challenging those with whom they strongly disagree, preferring to rein in those with whom they largely agree but who want equality sooner rather than later. Yet repeated concessions to anti-equality campaigners on this issue have led them to demand more and more, and encouraged them to see themselves as victims because they are not permitted to discriminate as much as they would wish.

Maybe the fallout from the latest episode will prompt a rethink. Without radical change, including deeper commitment to justice, the future of the Church of England - at least in its present form – looks bleak.


© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate and contributed to the 2008 book, Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard).

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