Women bishops – not about secular modernity vs. religious patriarchy

The General Synod’s vote last week to allow women bishops has far-reaching significance beyond the Church of England. It’s not simply about the Church ‘catching up’ to secular institutions by allowing women leaders: there are larger questions about patriarchy in general, and the British constitution. Questions about the CofE’s role in public life can only be coherently engaged with by appreciating this broader context.

The famously complex legislative process requiring two-thirds support in each of the Synod’s three houses stalled the approval of women bishops. But the principle of women bishops was agreed in 2006: the debate has concerned the timetabling of implementation, trying to accommodate the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical dioceses that oppose women bishops. The typically Anglican compromise of ensuring legislative protection to this minority may have threatened the Church’s long-term stability. The complexities of this process cannot be narrowly interpreted as religious conservatism against secular modernity. While the appointment of 5 women Cabinet ministers out of 24 is described as ‘historic’ 96 years after women first entered Parliament, 32% of CofE clergy are women despite only allowing women deacons in 1987 and women priests in 1994. Admittedly this relies on women as part-time workers rather than full-time clergy, reflecting gendered divisions of labour in secular institutions. But women priesthood was the real revolution making the vote last Monday inevitable. Feminist pressure convinced the CofE – ‘The Tory Party At Prayer’ – to accept this change. Similarly, while opposing same-sex marriage for the sake of Anglican unity now, political realities will ensure the CofE eventually recognises same-sex marriages. The CofE is ultimately a political institution. Like the Catholic Church they are concerned less with women bishops theoretically than the threat posed to Church bureaucracy and hierarchy in reality, that married priests or even contraception do not: it threatens the positions of unqualified men.

Though the CofE prioritises short-term Anglican unity above all else, it is not overtly interested in reactionary moralising. They aim to reflect a public morality, rather than inner spirituality or abstract evangelical morality. It is effectively already disestablished but seeks to be a force in maintaining a democratic balance. However this balance is no longer about the holy trinity of British conservatism – ‘Flag, Queen, and Church’ (in addition to the bishops there is a Queen on the board as well). Though Anglicans still generally vote Tory and Catholic voters overwhelmingly vote Labour, they are also more likely than non-Church attenders to oppose welfare cuts. Partly this is because something like the bedroom tax is understood as destroying families and communities. But more importantly for the Church, reversing the explosion of food banks or payday loans are believed to be of greater importance in maintaining public morality than preventing gay marriage.

Other than the issue of Europe, the Church provides the only challenge to establishment consensus. This is seen in a physical sense with the Occupy St. Paul’s camp forcing the Church to become the leading establishment voice for financial reform. Disability rights campaigners are using their protest at Westminster Abbey to pressure the Church into taking a similar stance on cuts to the Independent Living Fund. Even some republican campaigners who support disestablishing the CofE to “break” the monarchy’s legitimacy have simultaneously advocated using the church as a ‘moral’ voice to advance their cause. The Tories realise their foundations of ‘Flag, Queen, and Church’ are more threatened by this kind of split than their implementation of gay marriage – a Yes vote for Scottish independence and a Church beyond their control threatens to unravel their entire basis for existing. This is why David Cameron is attempting to use evangelical Christianity to solidify a Tory base in long-term decline. There are broader strains between the right and the Church.

When Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, argued for sharia family courts that operated under UK law in 2008, it provoked hysteria on the right. Misinformation about Dr. Williams’ proposal thrived in a climate where halal meat and the niqab are inconsistently condemned. Dr. Williams was talking more about how Muslims should be incorporated as UK citizens despite having a different relationship with the state than Anglicans do – sharia courts could exist as Jewish Beth Din courts do under UK law. Dr. Williams spoke not of religion or tradition for its own sake, but a more democratic balance. Fundamentally, the CofE’s conception of its role is no longer about underlining a conservative hierarchy.

The CofE is often seen merely as a parochial anomaly by a largely secular left. But there needs to be a clearer understanding of the CofE’s role in the broader political context, on debates ranging from education to reproductive justice. Anglican identity still has great political significance. Though the Tory right is increasingly open towards Anglo-Catholics after the CofE allowed women priests, the influx of Polish and African immigrants to the UK Catholic Church may lead to an anti-Catholic backlash at some point. Ironically, the atheist focus on ‘reason’ ignores current political and social conditions. There is a tendency – as exists in the left – to blame people for not sticking to theory, to pretend all religious belief is ‘false consciousness’. Atheist movements don’t consider their own failures to tackle misogyny or engage with self-identified women’s realities, namely how religious beliefs relate to larger economic and security concerns. While women’s rights shouldn’t be regarded as solely concerning the appointment of women bishops and cabinet ministers, there should be more constructive engagement with the Church.

A more democratic, disestablished church may better deal with cover-ups of child abuse, and the greater democracy in the non-established Church of Scotland has encouraged a more literate citizenry and political culture (strikingly having no bishops). But disestablishment would not necessarily unleash a wave of radicalism. The question is not simply whether the appointment of women bishops means the CofE is less parochial and more legitimate for the 21st century: the CofE’s more complex role as a check on the British establishment needs to be remembered. It requires coalition building on welfare, constitutional reform, Islamophobia, and – most crucially – a more multilayered understanding of patriarchy.

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