21 Nov 2012

Church of England women bishop vote: what next?

As Rowan Williams says the Church is less credible after rejecting women bishops and some MPs ask if its position is discriminatory, Channel 4 News looks at what happens now – and why you should care.

In a matter of minutes late on Tuesday evening, the Church of England synod poured cold water on 12 years of debate and voted against the introduction of women bishops.

The shock vote plunged the Church into turmoil and now threatens to widen the chasm between reformers and traditionalists. A vigil by supporters of women bishops was held on the steps of Church House and many were tearful after the result. One lay minister told Channel 4 News the mood at the assembly was “like a wake”.

The current legislation has been finely tuned since 2000, but it could be 2015 before a new vote on the matter reaches the synod, the Church’s national assembly, because of its rules on repeated voting.

Speaking to the assembly, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said the church now has a “lot of explaining to do” and appears “willfully blind” to the priorities of wider society.

Legal discrimination?

But aside from how the Church will be perceived, some MPs have raised questions about whether the synod’s position is discriminatory: while the vote on women bishops is an issue primarily for Christians, it also has ramifications for the rest of society because of the Church of England‘s close relationship with the British state. In addition, 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords and have a vote on parliamentary law.

In a sign that the prime minister was not prepared to let the issue lie, Mr Cameron said he would “look closely” at the issue and expressed his own personal regret at the Church’s decision, adding that the synod should “get on with it” and approve women bishops.

During prime minister’s questions, Labour MP Diana Johnson asked for a statement from the church’s representative in parliament explaining the implication of “continuing discrimination of having only men eligible to sit in the House of Lords as bishops”. Speaker John Bercow also said backbenchers with concerns should approach Equalities Minister Maria Miller, who could make a statement to the Commons.

The vote against women bishops highlights the tension between society’s equality legislation and religion. Within the equality act, legal exceptions have been made for religion, if the Church proves that it is essential for the job and inherent in religious doctrine, Kiran Daurka, solicitor at Slater and Gordon, told Channel 4 News.

Test case

But to determine whether having male-only bishops is discriminatory under UK law, a woman would have to “apply” for the role of bishop, be rejected and then bring her case to the Court of Appeal. She would then need to establish whether she is an “employee”, and that the decision not to allow female bishops is at odds somehow with Christian doctrine.

“It would throw up a lot of interesting questions about where the court can legislate in religious affairs,” says Ms Daurka. “The question really, is whether certain characteristics, like sex or race, trump a belief, that we choose to adopt?”

Majority vote?

Questions have also been raised over the rejection of the legislation despite an overall majority vote. It was approved by the house of bishops and house of clergy, but in the house of laity, 74 voted against, compared to 132 in favour with no abstentions, which fell short of the two-thirds majority required.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw asked Mr Cameron what parliament could do to “ensure that the overwhelming will of members of the Church of England, and of this country, is respected”.

The legislation which the synod voted on comes 20 years after women priests were first introduced. But the Church has so far been unable to resolve conflict about the provision for those parishes which do not accept the authority of a woman bishop.

Next vote ‘2015’

Synod rules determine that a final vote may not be returned to the same assembly twice. The next general election is in 2015, so although there is likely to be intensive negotiations and attempts to come up with agreeable legislation, those wanting change are in for the long haul – unless “exceptional circumstances” prevail, said a Church of England spokesperson.

Those opposed to the legislation in its current form took issue with the provision for those parishes which do not accept the authority of a woman bishop. The rejected legislation had proposed that a woman bishop would delegate to a stand-in male bishop to minister to parishes which rejected her authority. It read: “any parish can request a male priest or bishop on the grounds of their theological conviction and these convictions must be respected.”

However those opposed to women bishops want more legal clarity and detail about how this would work in practice.

Pete Myers from the campaign group Together 4ward told Channel 4 News that it was essential to find a solution acceptable to everyone. “This isn’t a vote for or against women bishops – it’s a vote about how women bishops are brought in,” he said. “Really it’s about the church recognising that they want to provide proper provision for those who take a different view.