Diana Johnson: Unequal rites for women barred from being bishops

WOMEN are the mainstay of the Church of England in communities up and down our country. The theological argument over women being ordained as priests was won exactly 20 years ago.

Since this 1992 vote, around 3,000 women have been ordained as priests. This reform has been a huge success, in keeping with the British tradition of reforms that put new wine into old bottles.

The next natural step is to see some of the excellent ordained women priests now move into positions of leadership in our Church as bishops.

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This logical and overdue step, was blocked by the veto of a small minority in General Synod.

Just as discrimination in the wider community is wrong, as it keeps the talents and abilities of all from flourishing, so it is important in the Established Church that the talents, experience and skills of both men and women are used and that the Church is led by the very best, and not just those who happen to be male.

There should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our Church.

After last week’s Synod vote, the Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant and frankly eccentric.

It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds, even though the vast majority of members of the Church want to see women bishops.

The Synod’s recent consultation among the 44 Dioceses saw 42 vote in favour of women bishops – only two narrowly voted against. At the General Synod, the House of Clergy voted 148-45 in favour of the legislation – a 77 per cent “yes” vote. The House of Bishops voted 44-3 in favour – 94 per cent saying “yes”. The House of Laity voted 132-74 in favour, but with 64 per cent voting in favour this was six votes short of the two-thirds majority required in each House.

In total, 324 members of the General Synod voted to approve the legislation and 122 voted to reject it.

Serious questions must be asked about the convoluted decision-making structures in place in the Church of England, and in particular about the representative nature of the House of Laity, and whether an overhaul of the electoral system needs to be considered. The decision was made by an unrepresentative minority in the House of Laity, blocking essential modernisation of the Church of England for potentially another five years – with no guarantee of progress even then.

Many campaigners for women bishops felt that they had offered concessions to accommodate those of different views and will perhaps now take a much less conciliatory approach, as they feel that previous concessions have been ignored, with no willingness to compromise.

As the Church of England is the Established Church, part of the constitutional settlement of our country, it is important that Parliament considers what this decision means for the nation and in particular the Church’s role in our law-making.

With the decision, we now see the entrenchment of the discriminatory nature of the 26 places in the House of Lords reserved for Bishops who can only be male.

With the Government 
deferring wider Lords reform, 
we now have to consider what to do about this sex discrimination that would not be allowed anywhere else in the membership of either of the Houses of Parliament.

We must also consider whether the exemption from equalities legislation for the Church of England now needs to be re-examined.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury has said that there will be moves by the Church to 
spend some time thinking 
about how to proceed, but it is imperative that those in the all-male group of Bishops do not 
talk just to one another, but work with and alongside senior women in the Church to find a way forward.

I think that Parliament also has a role to play and should do all that we can to support the Church at this time.

Some 1,415 years after its foundation, few would complain that the Church of England has moved with excessive haste in recognising the role of women within it.

A faith that started with Adam and Eve cannot just leave it to the leadership of Adam and Steve to take it forward in the 21st century.