Friday, 8 February 2013

Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride of Christ

Followers of the odder doings of the Church of England have to run to keep up at the moment. Yesterday, while we were considering restructuring for mission, the House of Bishops was getting on with the core business of the Church: tinkering with her own internal workings. 

The House of Bishops has it in mind, since there are no women yet among their number, to invite some women who are not bishops to participate in their meetings anyway. They will be what the Times calls “temporary observer ‘bishops’” and the Telegraph “not formally styled bishops” (although this phrase may be intended to be descriptive of existing members).

Whether this redefinition of the word “bishop” undermines the House ‘s stance on other matters of legal definition we decline to say. It is to be doubted, however, whether the addition of a few women priests to be seen and heard on unequal terms will really improve the bishops’ standing on matters of inclusion.

Perhaps it is all a clever ruse by opponents of women bishops, in the hope that the more senior women clergy see the bench of bishops in action the less keen they will be to join it. Readers will remember that the House of Laity had to hold a vote on whether they had no confidence in themselves, but no such vote has ever been found to be necessary in the bishops’ case.

Already, too, there have been calls for other underrepresented groups to have their consiglieri: queers (are these really underrepresented, we wonder?), women-opposed-to-the-ordination-of-women, cripples, and so on. If we are to go down that route, we would like to put in a word at once for pseudo-Jacobites, the high-and-dry, and Tory clergymen from the key electoral areas of the North-West.

At the end of that road, of course, is a state of affairs whereby every member of the Church of England is given participant observer status at the House of Bishops, with a voice in its decisions. This would never do: the passwords and the air of mystery must be maintained, with only a thorough search of Twitter able to reveal the bishops’ (and pseudo-bishops’) gnosis as they reflect on the train journey home.

For the moment, though, let us take at face value the desire of the bishops to include feminine voices in their deliberations. We assume that, as reported, the senior women observers will be self-selected, in the good old oligarchical way, but it would be preferable that they be elected on some delightful fancy franchise, such as lady PCC secretaries or Sunday School co-ordinators. Of course there is always a danger that some of the holders of these offices may be working class, but a simple request to the incumbent only to give ballot papers to educated people should avoid this, and so maintain the diaphora.

[Parenthetically we recommend to all clergy the traditional solution: at Plumstead the mistress of the rectory is herself in charge of the Sunday School. I am glad to report that (though over-educated for a woman) she seems unlikely to vote for progressive causes.]

Still we are unconvinced. To elect observers to participate in the House of Bishops seems unnecessary when we have already done the hard work of identifying the top women Anglicans – and not, like the clericalist House of Bishops, only among the clergy.

Clearly the most senior women dignitaries should be heard, but the bishops would doubtless benefit equally from the wisdom of top women authors (as long as they are married to deans) and that of the Duchess of Cambridge (with a second vote if scans show her unborn child to be a girl). Her Majesty the Queen, President of the So-Called Anglican Communion, would of course take the chair. This would leave the Archbishop of Canterbury free to devise better incentive schemes for the bishops, such as large bonuses for good performance (although the Church Commissioners need not worry yet for their budget, we suppose).

Though efficient, this suggestion may also founder on the objection that the Duchess of Cambridge, though certainly well styled, is not really a bishop either. In which case, would it not be simpler to remove from the House of Bishops entirely their synodical powers (which are dubious at best, in any case)? If even its own members think it no good, why not abolish it?

Of course, some will say, there will still be ecclesiastical matters to be decided, but the right and traditional place for that is in Parliament, Her Majesty also herself presiding. Yes, there is a real lack of theological knowledge in Parliament, but those who live in the House of Bishops should not throw stones.

In any case it will be a simple matter to increase the number of Anglicans in Parliament (even without reimposing the Test Act, which godly discipline is much to be wished), and at the same time to admit women clergy to the innermost councils on the same basis as men.

The bishops have already their senior representatives in the House of Lords, and when the Lords is reformed (by the expulsion of the life peers) there will be a lack of women, which should be filled by giving hereditary peerages, with remainder to heirs female, to senior Anglican women. Some would be dignitaries, others clergy and lay people nominated to the Prime Minister in the usual way. These women would be there on equal terms to the men, and not even Dr Giddings would object to their honorific addresses. Then, too, ecclesiastical dignitaries in the Lords could (and in accordance with tradition should) be allowed their fondest wish, and appear mitred.

If only we had a go-getting, problem-solving Archbishop ready to implement this proposal. John Sentamu, over to you.

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