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Vote on women bishops reveals frayed relationship between state and church

No equality in the CoE. Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

In 1979, the year Mrs Thatcher came to power, the Now! Religion Survey found that 85% of Anglicans thought women should be able to be clergy. It took the Church of England a further 15 years of wrangling to get to the point when the first women were ordained priests in 1994. Now, 20 years later, the Church is still arguing about whether to allow women to become bishops. On Monday the Church of England’s Synod votes again on the issue, having turned down proposals in 2012. What’s the Church’s problem?

It’s not the church as a whole which is the problem – far from it. Polling last year found 85% of Anglicans in favour of women bishops, and a mere 11% of Anglicans approving of their own church’s policies on women. The problem comes from other quarters.


One is the Church’s “General Synod”. Until the 20th century the Church of England was controlled by the state. Parliament gradually granted the Church more autonomy on condition that it develop more democratic structures. Synod, opened in 1970, was the unfortunate compromise.

Rather than allowing Anglicans one person one vote, Synod is made up of bishops and representatives of the clergy and the laity. Both the latter are elected by an arcane system of voting which has allowed opponents of women’s ordination to play the system and win a far greater share of places than minority status – fewer than one in ten Anglicans – warrants.

Synod is also hampered by the fact that proposals have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in every house. That means it’s virtually impossible to get progressive changes approved. Last year a mere six votes in the house of laity blocked the ordination of women.

But it’s not only Synod which is to blame. Last year I spoke to a senior bishop shortly after the Synod defeat. “Hadn’t you estimated the votes in advance?” I asked. He admitted they hadn’t. The bishops and archbishops, particularly Rowan Williams who was in charge at the time, carry a lot of the blame. They remain largely unaccountable to the wider church and have no way of knowing what the majority of its members think. They take important decisions independently of Synod, and they present many options on which Synod votes. Their mismanagement was a major factor in the 2012 defeat.

Lukewarm about equality

It’s also clear that many of the most senior clergy have been decidedly lukewarm about gender equality. Over many years they fought for – and gained – exemption from the equality laws which bind other public bodies in this country, including on gender. Although the bishops claim to be in favour of women in the church, women clergy remain clustered in unpaid and less glamorous and powerful posts.

Cynically, one could say that the episcopate don’t want gender equality because they don’t want to compete with the many very able women in the Church. But there are less obviously self-interested reasons as well. Some, like Rowan Williams, belong to the “Anglo-Catholic” party in the Church. They have a deep affection for Roman Catholicism and for the Eastern Orthodox Church. The ordination of senior women will set the CofE even further apart from these male-dominated churches. This is backed up by an argument from “tradition”: for 2,000 years the Church didn’t ordain women: why start now? Some of those who will vote no on Monday believe that there is a male chain of ordination from St Paul onwards, and that a woman bishop would break it.

The other party opposed to women bishops is made up of conservative evangelicals who believe in “male headship”. Being Bible-believers, they cite texts from St Paul to argue that women should not have authority over men in either home or church. An unlikely alliance of these extreme Protestants and Anglo-Catholics helped defeat the last vote on women bishops, and some will be vote the same this time.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is in a tricky position. Although he is a moderately conservative evangelical, he favours women bishops, and he faces overwhelming public and parliamentary pressure to get the vote through. He’s made more concessions to the opponents, including the search for an extra “male headship bishop”, and has applied strong moral pressure.

Political options

If Welby fails, Parliament could take matters into its own hands. Because the CofE remains the state church, it could pass the legislation itself. This would be a humiliation for the bishops, and a forfeit of the autonomy they have worked hard to secure. To avoid this, one option in the face of a no vote is for Synod to be dissolved and reconstituted – but that would be a slow and unpredictable process. Another option is for a bishop in the House of Lords to put through a private member’s bill. That would at least allow the bishops to save a little face.

The more radical option would be for the Church to rethink its decision-making processes and come up with something less cumbersome and more genuinely democratic. Given the high cost of a “no” there’s a reasonable chance we will get women bishops this time round. Given that it’s taken 20 years to get there, the chance of more radical change is virtually nil.

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