In a move that seemed calculated to disappoint almost everybody in the country, the Synod of the Church of England recently voted against a proposal to begin the introduction of female bishops to the organisation, and in doing so blocked the legislation from being considered in its current form until 2015.
The vote was close, being defeated by only six votes in one of the three houses of the Synod. This will come as little comfort to the supporters of the proposal, despite the Archbishop of York’s assertion that the rejection was more to the specifics of the legislation itself than to the general idea.
The most galling part of this defeat becomes evident when you consider the fact that the Church of England is not an organisation that exists entirely separate to our democracy. If it were simply an organised group of religious people then it might be a less bitter pill to swallow – certainly a step backwards for equality in this country but less an issue of democratic power than one of an individual organisation’s attitude to women.
The Church of England, however, does not stand apart from our democratic process. It makes up a significant proportion of the House of Lords, and the decision to refuse women the right to become bishops and thus progress through the hierarchy of the Church impacts not merely on women within the organisation but on the entirety of our democracy. The House of Lords is already somewhat of a democratic black hole, due to the way its members are appointed instead of being elected. The fact that some of its peers are chosen from an organisation that appears to have such a backwards view on women’s rights is a big problem for our society.
This is not some kind of special-interest feminist issue; it’s a mainstream one that is fundamental to equality in our democracy. The Church of England, in voting against the introduction of female bishops, has refused to lower another barrier that blocks women from taking their rightful place in our democratic process.
The Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that the Church has “lost credibility” after this decision, which is entirely true. The problem here is that the Church is an intrinsic part of the chambers of our government, and in a wider sense a representation of our society. In losing their own credibility the Church also erodes the credibility of our entire democratic process, and perhaps also of the country itself.