A few hours ago, the Church of England general synod voted against a new law that would allow women to become bishops. Even if the law had passed, parishes who still objected to the idea of women bishops could have requested to be cared for by a stand-in male bishop. This stand-in, even if they were in favour of women bishops, would have had to ‘respect’ the parish’s conviction that women bishops are ‘un-biblical’. There was also the likelihood that many Anglicans would defect to the Catholic Church if the law was passed.
The objections are primarily based on Bible passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:3:
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
Of course, I’m not one to settle disagreements by looking in the Bible, but that passage seems to me to be rather vague. Sexist, yes, but I don’t think it is explicitly talking about gender roles in the clergy.
Just as it is embarrassing for Mormons that their policy of institutional racism was rescinded as late as 1978 as a result of a ‘revelation’, I’m sure that the Church of England will look back (once the law eventually passes, as it surely must) with embarrassment at being on the wrong side of history for so long.
For me, this outcome raises two questions:
1) Should non-Anglicans (in particular atheists) care about this?
2) Why is this allowed to come down to a vote?
Regarding the first question; why should we care if we aren’t somehow invested in the Church ourselves? Surely it doesn’t matter how Anglicans worship non-existent deities, so long as they’re not harming anyone in the process? The obvious answer to this is that discrimination might be seen as a form of harm. I don’t want a society in which someone is discriminated against on the basis of their gender, race, etc – if the discrimination is happening in their place of employment then it doesn’t strike me as a salient consideration that I might not work for the same employer, just as I don’t think it matters that I’m not an Anglican.
In fact, the non-Anglican is affected by this vote, as these bishops have a seat in the House of Lords. Effectively this means that 26 seats in Parliament are denied to women – while this is just a small proportion of the total, the principle is unconscionable. Yes, we might not want there to be any bishops in the House of Lords, but if there must be then at the very least those positions should not be filled in a discriminatory manner.
My second question asks why it is that there was a vote to decide whether or not the Church should be allowed to discriminate against women. Companies aren’t allowed to have a board meeting in which the executives all sit round and vote whether they should pay black people less – UK law forbids it. So why is it not simply decided by a court that the Anglicans aren’t allowed to deny women the right to be bishops (and neither are the Catholics)? I must confess that I don’t have an answer to this – it’s mind-boggling.