The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Paradigm Case

The Church of England's General Synod, this past Tuesday (November 20, that is), rejected draft legislation that would have allowed the consecration of women as bishops, and thereby precipitated a crisis. The rejection was by a razor thin margin; the legislation secured the necessary two-thirds majority in two of the three synodical Houses, passing in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, only to fail by six voted in the House of Laity. In the days since, the depths of the crisis has become increasingly clear. The day after the vote, Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the Church's failure in withering terms, saying:
The Church has its own processes and elections. They might be hard for some of us to understand, but we must respect individual institutions and the decisions they make. That does not mean we should hold back in saying what we think. I am very clear that the time is right for women bishops—it was right many years ago. The Church needs to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme, but we must respect individual institutions and how they work, while giving them a sharp prod
Prime Minister Cameron's evident reluctance to force an outcome aside, his evident impatience with the result, and his willingness to administer a "sharp prod" were only the beginning for the C of E.

On Thursday (November 22), an Urgent Question posed to Second Church Estates Commissioner Sir Tony Baldry (the other Church Estates Commissioner being the PM) led to a debate on the outcome in which members of all parties--Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour, and SNP--roundly condemned the Synod vote, and intimated a Parliamentary response--whether disestablishment, deprivation of the bishops's 26 seats in the House of Lords, passing the measure themselves, reforming the procedures by which members of General Synod are elected or reinstating more active Parliamentary review of episcopal appointments, taking back the quantum of independence ceded the C of E in 1987, or removing the C of E's immunity to anti-discrimination law. The debate is especially interesting in that the most pro-Church speakers oppose forcible intervention and/or clipping the Church's wings, while denouncing the vote. No speaker defended the result on the merits. Moreover, Sir Tony, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, was involved in an exchange in which he suggested that the C of E had lost influence with Parliament itself as well as the nation:
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman share my sadness and that of many other people that the Church has made itself appear so out of touch and anachronistic in its decision making? The head of the Church of England is a woman, but in the 21st century we cannot have women bishops.

Sir Tony Baldry: I agree. It is a great sadness. I suspect that every right hon. and hon. Member has recently had representations from Church members on same-sex marriage. If the Church of England thinks that Parliament will listen to it with considerable attention on moral issues such as same-sex marriage and so on when the Church of England seems to be so out of step on other issues of concern to Parliament, it is simply deluding itself.
That's the Church's advocate in Parliament talking.

Also on Thursday, Labour member Frank Field introduced a bill "to to amend the Equality Act 2010 to remove discrimination against women in relation to consecration of bishops in the Church of England" by subjecting the C of E to the Act. The bill is not a Labour-only exercise, however; it has six supporters who represent all three major parties. It is unlikely to pass--it's a private bill, without official support from either the Government or the Opposition--but is one hell of a shot across the bow.

This raises, in the starkest possible terms, the questions of establishment and its legitimacy; as well, it raises the related question of whether the influence can be all one way (Church on State) without State pushing back. Some of the proposed reforms do not directly deprive the Church of self-governance or of autonomy. For example, taking from the Church the perks of establishment (such as 26 seats in the House of Lords, not a very large group, and one which seldom swings a vote, but it does happen, and their influence is more decisive than their votes) does not deprive it of liberty, only of political advantage, which may be historically adventitious but itself indefensible. The Field Bill could create a precedent for more general regulation that could effect other denominations as well, and be dangerous to religious freedom.

I'm unequivocally a supporter of women's ordination and of the necessary (theologically and just logically) corollary consecration of women as bishops. I think General Synod got it humiliatingly wrong in the vote. I believe the uproar should occasion self-reflection within Synod, and should give rise to a self-correction. But the scholar in me--I'm working on a series of articles on separation of church and state, and was researching the experience of the established C of E--is still digging, with more urgency now that this test of the operating paradigm of church-state relations has arisen. I'm not ready to opine yet as to what steps beyond condemnation and shaming, if any Parliament should take in this matter. The UK's informal, unwritten constitution is fragile, and an overreaction could badly damage the balance key interests of equality and liberty, here drawn into a needless conflict by General Synod's failure. I'll report back soon.

What I can say now if that the Commons are absolutely free to disregard the advise of the C of E, as Sir Tony suggests they well may, on civil marriages (not sacred). Actions have consequences, and persuading Parliament that the Church lacks wisdom can only lead to a loss of moral suasion and political influence. No sympathy on that score at all.

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