Do the CofE actually hate women?
That’s a pretty extraordinary question to be asking, but honestly, when the church’s General Synod votes to deny women the opportunity to be bishops, even 20 years after finally allowing them to be ordained, it’s also a natural one. There are reasons, though, to question the narrative that paints the church as a bunch of misogynists.
First, it should be noted that to pass the draft legislation, Synod would have needed a two-thirds majority in each of three “houses” – among bishops, clergy and the laity. The bishops and clergy passed it overwhelmingly, with the bishops voting 44-3 in favour and the clergy voting 148-45. The majority of the laity also voted in favour, but fell just short of the two-thirds required, only winning 132-74. It’s intriguing that the laity appear to be the most conservative, and I wonder if this says something about the sort of people who take enough of an interest to be lay members of General Synod.
That this result represents a “no” vote is the result of a bizarre constitution that makes it ridiculously hard to make any contentious changes. Having said that, it’s still the case that a huge number of people (about 27% by my calculations) voted to effectively maintain a “stained glass ceiling”, preventing women from rising to the top of the church. So at least those people are misogynists, right?
Well, maybe not. Even without accepting or agreeing with the theological arguments around male headship and priesthood, which you may or may not consider reasonable, there are at least plausible reasons for voting against the legislation which don’t ultimately boil down to “I don’t want icky women telling me what to do.”
To understand the problem, we have to go back to 1992. The idea of women being ordained was still controversial, so to minimise opposition and ensure that this measure could be passed, it was designed to leave the issue of bishops for another time, and those who were theologically uncomfortable with women as priests were promised that they would continue to have their views honoured. If those compromises hadn’t been made, women would almost certainly not have been ordained then, and they would quite possibly still be waiting.
Those political compromises achieved the initial aim, but they now stand in the way of genuine equality. Having made promises and given guarantees to those who opposed women’s ordination, it’s understandable if people are inclined to vote down any proposal that falls short of that promise. Whether or not you accept concerns that the Apostolic Succession would be tainted or broken if women could be bishops, the church has already promised to respect that view.
The church finds itself in a bind of its own making. This legislation was apparently voted down because it failed to offer the promised protection for those who believe women can’t be priests, but other amendments which would have satisfied those people had previously been rejected, because they would have perpetuated the attitudes that consider women to be somehow inferior.
I’m horrified at this result, which is only likely to push me further away from a church with which I used to feel a connection, but it’s not a simple “yes or no” question, taken in isolation. We’re here as the result of many years of wrangling, negotiation and politics, and unlike most bodies making politically expedient promises, the church still seems reluctant to go back on its word. Unfortunately, going back is now the only way to go forward.