There is no pleasure to be taken in the vote in the Church of England’s Synod today which failed to reach the majority required to proceed to having bishops in that church who happen to be women. However, I did say a little while ago that had I been in England’s Synod, I think I would have voted against the measure that was proposed even though I’m personally in favour of opening the Episcopate to women and men equally and indeed voted in favour when we faced a similar question in the General Synod in Scotland. (Women can become bishops in the Scottish Episcopal Church but not have done so yet).
The trouble with the measure in England from my point of view is that it was a compromise far too far. It was not a vote for or against women bishops, it was a vote for or against allowing women to become second-class bishops. Churches would have been able to opt out of a female bishop’s care (though not from a male bishop’s care) and request oversight from someone sharing the same theological views. It is the Church of England’s preferred heresy at the moment and it is probably a good thing that it has failed to go any further now though a horrible mess. The Church of England looks foolish and we all end up being tarred with the same brush.
There will (and should be) much soul searching. The abject failure of Rowan Williams’s archepiscopate is now complete. Things will probably not start to get much better in the Church of England until confident voices who hold sway start to say that out loud. That however will be a long time coming. (It is like the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg – the only hope is in repudiating all he has stood for yet the voices that will continue to be heard in the Lib Dems continue to support policies which are electoral suicide).
There are other lesser failures though. Liberals in the church tend not to be nearly so good at arguing for progressive causes as conservatives are for the things they hold dear. Conservative spokespeople have been popping up everywhere but there has not really been any united campaign group working for equality. Even up to the last minute, groups supportive of women in the episcopate found it hard to say what their members should do because their members were divided. Many believed that the proposal on offer was as good as it was going to get and were prepared to compromise and vote for it, even though they felt like holding their noses whilst doing so. Others, who knows, maybe enough to have swayed the vote, were unconvinced.
This vote was only lost by six votes after all.
Things might be better if there were groupings of people who were working for equality and not prepared to compromise on it.
Looking on at the passion of the Church of England from outside, one finds oneself trying hard to substitute compassion for pity.
There are many fine women priests and the cause for treating them equally in Canon Law is an easy one to make but one which has not been made often enough. Those female clergy deserved better than this measure. The whole church deserved better than this and now has the chance to try to find its way towards it.
The Church of England gets its chance to prove that it worships at something other than the altar of compromise.