Monstrous regiment?

Women Bishops & CofE: Irrelevant? If only

The Church of England’s failure to accept women bishops is embarrassing, but solutions short of disestablishment are absurd, argues Paul Demarty

Whatever else may be said about it, the Church of England is terribly English. England is part of a modern, capitalist nation, yet the image it sells abroad is of palaces and pageantry, the stuff of a dead aristocracy preserved as a marketable symbol. England is permanently in a quiet, polite identity crisis, which is primarily of a temporal nature.

Nothing embodies this more eloquently than the established church. It, too, has the patina of timeless continuity to it (despite stemming, in a basically contingent way, from the grubby power-politics that grew up around the reformation and counter-reformation). Yet it is infamous for being the church of liberal vicars, of the touchy-feely individualist spirituality that characterises our age, and of people who can barely be said to believe in god at all.

Mostly, this is the cause for beatific tolerance. We tolerate this tottering institution with an ironic but affectionate smile, because its quaintnesses are - in the national myth - our own. Not so this week: the C of E general synod failed to ratify a tortuous compromise plan between the trendy vicars and traditionalists, which would allow women to become bishops.

The decision-making process itself is quite a spectacle, somewhat reminiscent of the tsarist duma, with its class-divided curia structure. Three bodies had to pass the vote by a qualified majority - the houses of bishops, clergy and laity. A majority of each voted in favour - most overwhelmingly the bishops. But the vote in the house of laity did not meet the two-thirds threshold, missing it by an agonising six votes.

‘Agonising’ is the word of the week. The debate on the day lasted for nine hours, and was by all accounts turgid. This is primarily due to the dishonest tactics of the opponents of women bishops - a motley bunch of bible-thumping fundamentalists, Anglo-Catholics and other oddities. They are all opposed in principle to women having authority over men.

What they make of the formal head of the church - her majesty the queen, fidei defensatrix, to whom everyone from the parish vicar to the archbishop of Canterbury is in theory answerable - is difficult to gauge. Biblical references in support of this stance are of a piece with all ‘traditionalist’ biblical references. The Good Book will be taken at face value where it reconfirms already-held prejudices. Where it does not - eg, the sanctification of genocide in the Old Testament - some clever theological construction will be pressed into service as a convenient dodge. The principle is not fidelity to the Bible, but fidelity to patriarchal oppression of women as such.

Given all this, the traditionalists preferred to argue as if they were well-meaning brokers of a compromise between Lambeth Palace and an inert, off-stage mass of old-school Christians, and feared for the ‘unity’ of the church if further provisions were not made for conscientious objectors to female bishops. The agreed provisions were quite generous enough already; but it is the C of E mainstream that suffers if the policy is not passed, not the lunatic fringe, which are quite happy to cock a snook at modernity. They have outgoing archbishop and self-proclaimed ‘bearded leftie’ Rowan Williams over a barrel.

This is the ‘salami slice’ tactic so beloved of anti-abortionists, only in reverse - every inch of ground the traditionalists concede, they do so only with the most vigorous guerrilla battles. They fight hard and they fight dirty. In this case, they fought just hard and dirty enough.

Who, anyway, is the house of laity? The bishops and clergy are self-explanatory - and rigorously on message. The house of laity is supposed to represent ordinary churchgoers (in fact, it embodies the notion, so central to the C of E, that the highest ‘lay member’ of them all - the monarch - is the supreme authority). There is no such thing as an ordinary churchgoer, however; the system of elections inevitably favours evangelicals, who disproportionately make up the forces sufficiently invested in the future direction of the church to sit through the interminable dullness of the parish and deanery committees which, in turn, elect the general synod.

The response from the establishment has been, on the whole, a forceful collective facepalm. David Cameron, a lay Anglican (by his own admission, not especially observant), urged the church to “get with the programme” - a very C of E, trendy-vicar phrase. Politicians of all stripes (barring the Tory right, of course) are deeply embarrassed. The principle of women’s equality has been conceded in just about every sphere of life, even where the reality remains stubbornly resistant to change. The church sticks out like a sore thumb.

There have been suggestions that the church may be brought to book under existing equalities legislation. In fact, it may already be - just as the British National Party had its whites-only membership rule overturned by a European court, so it may be that putative women bishops may have a case before the European Union judiciary themselves for discrimination.

That would be a fittingly absurd outcome. Yet it is difficult to imagine it coming to pass. EU law may be judicially binding, but it would lack the requisite moral authority to bring the lay synod members (to which body new elections will not take place until 2014) to heel. In fact, it may reduce the vote simply in protest. The most likely outcome would be the one the church bureaucracy fears the most, even now - a split.

For similar reasons, veiled threats from the government to enforce gender parity are unlikely to amount to much. In Britain, it is said, politicians ‘don’t do god’. This is utterly false, though it is true that we do not make such a song and dance of it as the Americans; but in this particular case, dabbling in the internal affairs of the church is best avoided. Cameron would inevitably face a rebellion from his own right wing, which would serve to remind the country that his party remains the natural home of misogynistic wing-nuts. Splitting the Church of England would not be a particularly good mark on a Tory CV either.

More to the point, the direct governance of a religious institution by state power - while it is written in the Church of England’s DNA - looks pretty ridiculous in this day and age. We no longer persecute heretics and non-established faiths, shaky relations with Islam notwithstanding. Faith is ostensibly a private matter - indeed, that very ‘privacy’ is the main means whereby theologically inspired reactionary politics are insulated from criticism. (George Carey, with his infamous comparison of himself and others opposed to gay marriage to the victims of Nazi concentration camps, provides a graphically stupid example.)

Who the hell is David Cameron to tell the Church of England that it should not enforce sexist mumbo jumbo as a matter of its dogma? (Never mind the European courts!) Surely it should be the choice of the church itself. Yet it cannot be - precisely because it is an established church. Looking for rational solutions to religious difficulties is always a counter-intuitive matter, but it is surely rational even from the religious point of view to disestablish the church, freeing it from the need to track the political exigencies of the bourgeoisie.

Many a true word is spoken in jest, however, and those who joke about the faithlessness of the Anglican clergy have a point. The church does not exist primarily as a religious, but as a state, institution. It benefits enormously from this arrangement in a thoroughly worldly manner. The church is one of the largest landowners in the country. It enjoys enormous state subsidies and privileged access to power. In return, it need only do one thing - put a brake on the forward motion of society, act out its purpose in the dignified part of the British constitution, spread obedience to authority and other fine and noble Christian doctrines.

The issue of whether women should be entitled to be bishops is something of a distraction. Yes, a single dent in a reactionary institution and its reactionary ideological base is better than nothing. Yet it is no more than a dent. Defence of patriarchy is hard-wired into every major world religion. Progressive-minded women of faith, instead of trying to smash the stained-glass ceiling, might want to wonder why that is, and why such ideology is so hard to shift in religious institutions; they will not find the answer in the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, but in a materialist analysis of religion.

As far as the Church of England goes, such an analysis has one key lesson. Disestablishment of the church, the seizure of all its lands and property not directly connected to worship, and the enforcement of full secularism in society - that is, the absolute separation of church and state across the board - is an essential part of overturning bourgeois power.