So it’s “yes” to women bishops after a struggle lasting more than 20 years – or 2,000 depending on when you want to start the clock. But how much difference will it really make?
The first worry has to be whether after all that fuss any women will actually be appointed. The Anglican Church in Ireland voted for women bishops 20 years ago and only appointed one last year; the Anglican Church in Scotland voted in favour a decade ago, and still hasn’t got any.
The problem is that the most senior bishops – “diocesan bishops” – can’t be directly appointed by the church authorities, only “suffragan bishops” can be. So the first women bishops will be suffragans and that could happen within the year. But suffragans are just assistants to a (male) diocesan bishop, so that’s not going to shake the status quo.
What’s needed are female diocesan bishops and, even more importantly, some who can sit in the House of Lords. Parliament is going to get impatient if the current all-male bench of 26 bishops doesn’t start to include some women before too long.
But the process of appointing diocesan bishops is long, cumbersome, and conservative. First you have to get your name on a long list. Then you have to go through a committee that makes a shortlist. If you make it to that list, you then have to go before a committee with diocesan representatives.
Not only are there are opponents of women bishops at every step of the way, but recent appointments of bishops have been notably “safe” and “predictable” according to the Revd Professor Martyn Percy, principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon. Even if a woman does eventually get appointed, he says: “the chance of a genuinely radical woman being appointed remains remote.”
Then there’s the problem of numbers. There are some impressive senior church women around, many as deans of cathedrals, but there won’t be that many bishops’ jobs for them to fill. The sociology of organisations tells us that numbers matter. A minority group is under pressure to conform and not appear “ungrateful”, it is marginal to informal decision-making networks. And its members are likely to be treated as representative of all members of their kind.
Poor record on equality
Nor is the Church of England’s record on equal opportunities encouraging. It managed to win exemptions from the equality legislation that applies to other public bodies and its record of employing women is worrying. Analysis I carried out last year found that even though women have been ordained for two decades now, only a third of paid clergy are female compared with half of the unpaid clergy. And things are getting worse not better, with declining numbers of younger women coming forward to be ordained.
The trouble is that the more the Church has stalled on granting women equality and the more concessions it has made to opponents, the more out of step with society and obviously sexist it has become. And once you become one of the last boys’ clubs in town, you’re likely to attract people who like it that way – the start of a vicious cycle.
But that’s also why women bishops are so important – symbolically at least. The vote could be a turning point. The episcopal glass ceiling has been shattered, and a woman can do what their opponents have most dreaded: ordain men priests and exercise “headship” over them.
I asked a colleague in Denmark what difference he thought it would make, because the Church of Denmark is one of the few remaining state churches like the Church of England, but it has ordained women since 1948, and bishops since 1995.
The advantage, my colleague tells me, is not that their women clergy are feminist (few are), but “simply that they are women – like half the population and the majority of church members”. Without female pastors, he says, it’s unthinkable that the Church would have retained 78% of Danes as paying members, and maintained its status as one of the most trusted of all Danish institutions.
Just as in England, women at parish level in Denmark have contributed a lot in terms of intelligence, imagination, hard work and pastoral gifts. He concludes:
If you want to have sectarian ‘male’ Christianity keep women out of office. If you want to make Christianity a (possible) joy for all people, include women as leaders at all levels.
The thing that’s distinctive about state churches is that they exist to serve the whole of society, not just a small number of religiously committed people. For most of its history, that’s how the Church of England saw itself. In recent decades, however, it’s been dominated by people who wanted it to become an exclusive “sect” rather than an open, liberal church. The maintenance of male privilege was a major element in their strategy.
The fact that they have finally lost that battle is a significant victory for those who want to see the Church of England regain lost respect and serve the whole nation again. But there’s still a long way to go.