Why are the laity so conservative?

This is the last I’m going to write about female bishops for a while, I promise.

I would have thought that the laity in the Church of England would be more liberal and progressive than the clergy and bishops, and I’ve previously posted about how it’s the church hierarchy that perpetuates the same old beliefs, but from Tuesday’s vote on consecrating women as bishops, the opposite seems to be the case. The further up the hierarchy of the church you go, the stronger the support for the draft legislation. That seems totally counterintuitive to me, but it seems the same thing happened over the ordination of women, so what’s going on?

The first and most obvious point to make is that this vote wasn’t on the principle of women being consecrated as bishops, which has already been approved, but the practical arrangements for that change. That’s a subtle distinction, and one which is the result of the CofE’s peculiar constitution, but it may be at least part of the key to explaining what happened.

The bishops, who were the most enthusiastic supporters of the legislation, mostly had a considerable amount of investment in its success. They may have been involved in drafting it, or could have discussed it at sufficient length with colleagues to feel closely connected with the measure, and felt that it more or less reflected their own views. They may also have attempted to reflect their clergy’s views, but will probably not have spoken to a huge cross-section of their congregants.


No women allowed

So that partly explains it. It may also be that as this measure was about how to admit women to the episcopate, rather than whether to do so, the clergy were more likely to focus on the practicalities of that, rather than viewing it as a continuation of a battle that has already been won. Conversely, experience of applying their faith in complex situations may make them more likely than a lay person to accept a messy compromise rather than holding out for an unachievable perfection.

To be honest, though, I think the most important factor is in the process of election for General Synod. Bishops and clergy on Synod can be expected to be more or less representative of the groups they represent, but I’m not so sure about the laity.

Lay members of General Synod are elected by Deanery Synods, which in turn are made up of representatives of Parochial Church Councils (PCCs). PCCs are generally made up of anyone keen enough to volunteer, or more commonly, anyone who doesn’t look the other way quickly enough when there’s a vacancy. Those who end up on Deanery Synod are invariably the keen ones, and they select members of General Synod.

So General Synod is heavily weighted in favour of those who are keen, which is usually because they have a particular agenda. That’s bad enough, as it’s likely to disproportionately favour extremists, but when membership involves several layers of unrewarded representation, each more demanding than the last, those who can make the necessary commitment are most likely to be wealthy and/or retired – again, almost certainly more conservative than the average pew-filler.

If my theory’s right, I’d expect to see the balance of General Synod change in response to this result, as more progressive people are motivated to ask who represents them and what they stand for, and to put themselves forward as a rival candidate if necessary. Time will tell.

Photo by flyheatherfly, 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 “Why are the laity so conservative?”

  1. Jules Bradley (@hgjules) says :

    Let’s hope a few of them do stand. Easier to have a mutter then let the usual suspects do the committee stuff.

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