Friday, November 23, 2012

Women Bishops: Why is it Newsworthy in a Secular Age?

Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Cen...
Canterbury Cathedral: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since only around 10% of the British population attend church regularly, and within that small group, only a proportion are practising Anglicans, I have been genuinely surprised at the amount of British media comment on this week's Synod decision to keep the current status of Anglican bishops to men only. 

At issue here - quite apart from what anyone may think of the Synod's decision - is the passion which it seems to have engendered among those who disagree with it on grounds of sexual equality.

This example is not atypical from my Twitter time line:

"In these times the church has a useless f**** debate about women bishops. COE is f**** redundant and morally and spiritually dead"
(from Martin a  "Personal Coach, Failure Consultant and Responsible Business Auditor" based in north London)

Meanwhile, a frustrated David Cameron speaking in the House of Commons urges the Church of England to "get with the programme" and push through the changes, while receiving a "sharp prod" from the government to that end.
On Thursday's Question Time on BBC, Yvette Cooper was advocating that Parliament should consider taking legal action to force the Church of England to allow women to be ordained as bishops.

In the anger about the Synod's decision, I have not so far read a single comment reminding us that the Church of England is a voluntary society. No-one is forced to join it. Those who dissent from its doctrine or practices are entirely at liberty to leave and set up their own church if they want. 

With salaries of between £30 - 40,000, Anglican bishops can hardly be said to be following their vocation out of a desire to get rich. It is not a typical career, in that sense. And with 44 dioceses, the number of bishops is limited (generally, one per diocese), so we are not talking about a vast number of women or men who will occupy these positions in the church establishment.

So, why the rage from so many who never darken the door of a church?
Part of the issue, I think, is that the Church of England is the official state church, with the monarch as its head, and with its bishops occupying seats in the upper chamber of the British Parliament. In this capacity, so the argument goes, the church must conform to the social norms of the wider society which it "belongs" to. One comment on Question Time argued that this was important since "the church does coronations, royal weddings and Remembrance."

If the official status of the Church of England is one factor explaining the media backlash to the Synod's decision, there is also a more general issue at stake. Paradoxically, in a secular age, society appears to want the church to affirm it in its values. My friend Steve Smith expressed it perfectly when he tweeted:

I think it's partly about secularists wanting Christians and Xtian establishment to conform, reinforce & justify [the] former's values.

It is worth pondering that, whereas in all the talk since the Synod's vote, most critics are quick to claim that they believe in diversity and freedom of religion, in practice, many of them become incandescent when such diversity actually finds expression in ways that challenge the dominant discourse. 

Is Britain occupying the role of an easy-going parent, who encourages its children to grow, explore and discover their own way in life, only to balk when one of the children does just that and adopts a way of life as an adult at odds with its apparently tolerant parent?

Is the idea of non-conformity in fact a threat to the secular agenda (or "the programme" as the Prime Minister has described it)? It makes me wonder whether, in the end, secularism, for all its grand claims, actually demands conformity - not diversity as it so loudly proclaims.





If you enjoyed this post, get free updates by email or RSS.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Mel said...

There's a difference between conformity and equality.

This issue has gained so much media attention because it once again proves that the CofE still wants to regard itself above the law and allow gender discrimination in the workplace whilst remaining tax-free and in a position of un-elected power within parliament.

That just isn't going to work I'm afraid.

Al Shaw said...

Thanks Mel.

The C of E are not breaking any laws are they?

between-the-lines said...

Mel's put her/his finger on it. The CofE has been trying to hold together too many mutually contradictory ideas and people together, for too long, and there's only so much fudge anyone can take before it makes you sick.

Even a liberal society can only cope with a certain amount of latitude before it falls apart under internal dissension. This is the paradox democratic liberal societies are faced with; that ultimately to make everyone liberal they have to use coercion, something at odds with liberalism itself.

Tricky huh?