Beware simplistic narratives on the CofE’s Synod vote

It’s been a week since the Church of England voted on the draft legislation which would have created female bishops, and in that time, two dominant narratives have emerged. On the one hand, the church (or at least those who voted against the measure) stand accused of backwardness and sexism. On the other, the claim is that this wasn’t a vote against women being bishops so much as a vote against the details of how it was being implemented.

VoteHaving written about it at length, I’d intended to leave this subject well alone, at least for now. But then the details of how people voted were published, and I just had to write a bit more, because the picture painted is a long way from the way it’s being presented by the two sides of the argument.

My first thought was to examine the voting among the laity, and to see where the vote was lost. I was curious to see what the balance of the sexes was, and whether a differently-balanced House of Laity might have swung the vote. The first interesting discovery was that there’s little difference in the number of men and women. Of the 206 who voted, 91 were female.

Even more interesting than that, though, was the voting patterns between the sexes. Both men and women had a majority for the measure, but neither with the necessary two-thirds for the motion to be carried. Both groups were 64% in favour, the men splitting 74-41 and the women 58-33. It may well be that those women have bought into a sexist worldview, but it’s not quite as straightforward as blatant oppression by nasty men.

So maybe the vote against really was a sober rejection of the practicalities, rather than the principle. But is there some way of testing that hypothesis?

BishopYes, there is – examining the voting patterns among the clergy. If the vote was lost because it wasn’t practical, or didn’t make enough allowances for people with different ideas, you’d expect to see a similar pattern across all houses and sexes. In the House of Clergy, though, while the men only narrowly passed the motion 96-44, women overwhelming supported it, with just one vote against (Rebecca Swyer, from the notoriously male-dominated Chichester Diocese) and 52 for.

The people for whom this vote really mattered – people who actually face the reality of the Stained-Glass Ceiling – had no doubts. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but it shows up something interesting. Contrary to initial appearances, the outliers weren’t the laity – they were the female clergy. In fact, there’s no statistically significant difference between the laity, who just missed the required majority, and the male clergy, who narrowly achieved it.

What does all this mean? It very strongly suggests that some members of General Synod aren’t exactly loving others as themselves. That may be those who can safely deny women promotion in the church because it’s an issue that doesn’t affect them directly (lay women as well as the men), or it could be that female clergy are putting their own career prospects ahead of practical considerations that concern others. Your prior views will determine your response, but the distinction is striking.

Above all, the breakdown of the laity suggests that the apparent naked sexism of the “no” vote is a bit more complicated than that. It may be more of a generalised and ingrained conservatism, or it may be an objective assessment of flawed proposals, which only looks out of place thanks to the voting of female clergy.

I have my ideas, and you will undoubtedly have yours. I doubt this analysis will change anyone’s mind about the right course of action, but hopefully it will make the arguments a little more informed.

NB: I have done my best to analyse the voting statistics as they have come to me. I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes, but if you notice any, please let me know and I’ll be happy to correct them.

Photos by Alan Cleaver and MonkeyMyshkin, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

One response to “Beware simplistic narratives on the CofE’s Synod vote”

  1. Wen Scott says :

    Fascinating reading your column over the past days. Thank you. I still think the underlying drive behind rejecting women as bishops, however, is age-old profoundly embedded misogyny (to which women too are thoroughly indoctrinated from early days) .

    For example, has the church had such a long history of blocking the promotion of distinct and easily identifiable groups of men? Black men? Asian? (Gay men are much harder to single out, although, yes the church has tried to block them and failed overwhelmingly) I don’t agree the vote might be directed by the protection of career prospects; I cannot see how that applies to protecting one’s own career prospects, that being a much more individual and humanly competitive aspect of the politicking within any hierarchy. Fear? Lack of confidence or support from the majority laity or society? The RC church, Islamic and Jewish faiths seem simply to refuse to deal with issue of women in positions of authority at all. The Dalai Llama was brought to tears when confronted with the sexism present in Buddhism.

    If the roles were reversed and men were forced to wait literally generations while women debated and voted whether their men possessed souls, whether they should be present in sacred places of worship, what times of the month men were unclean, whether they could perform duties as priests, advise and absolve women, etc., etc., … and now bishops? — the whole debate starts to look cliche’ed and redundant and not likely to resolve itself in the near future.

    I, for one (forgive my cynicism) am not at all surprised that so many women have left organized religion and taken their families with them. There are many ways to live out one’s beliefs and the CofE, or any religious hierarchy is looking less attractive every day.

    A very sad state, especially now when our societies are in so desperate need of sane voices and safe community havens against the many problems our world faces.

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