I don’t normally get involved in discussions about religion or politics (particularly religious politics) but I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of women bishops this week. I’m a feminist – no, that does not contradict my decision to be a full-time mother – and an agnostic, so my initial reaction to the rejection of the legislation that would finally allow women to become bishops in the Church of England was anger. After reading the blog post of a somewhat troubled Christian friend (who is certainly not a misogynist) on the subject, I felt I should attempt a more reasoned response myself.
I accept the point that equality does not have to mean homogeny. It’s one I have frequently made myself in relation to educational provision for the least and most able students. I also agree that this is more than simply an ‘equality at work’ debate. There is clearly a theological argument to be made; I don’t know enough to make the counter-argument and I’m not arrogant or disrespectful enough to think that twenty minutes on the internet would equip me to do so. However, it’s also clear that many Christians are in favour of the prospect of female bishops. The women who hope to become bishops and the men (and other women) who support them presumably have a sound theological basis for their position too. If we dismiss issue of ‘equality at work’ because this is not merely a job, does that mean that these women are being prevented from fulfilling their calling?
It’s thorny ground, as is the exemption of the Church from equality laws. As someone who believes strongly in the separation of Church and State – history demonstrates all too well how religion can be misused by bad leaders – this worries me. It would be easy to see it as the top of a slippery slope to discrimination. I wonder would the reaction would be if the debate was about black bishops or disabled bishops… However, speculation isn’t sound argument and given the public comments made by the current and incoming Archbishop of Canturbury, I think this is not the real issue.
What does concern me, more than the actual outcome of the vote, is that apparently several members of the synod have openly admitted voting against the current legislation despite being in favour of allowing women bishops. (There’s a issue regarding ‘safeguards’ for parishes who won’t accept a female bishop, which perhaps merits a separate discussion.) These people voted to protect the unity of the Church rather than for what they believed to be right, and if Christians won’t stand up for what they believe, who will?