Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The long arm of the law

I have been intrigued, but not entirely taken by surprise, by the early day motion  proposed by Frank Fields asking that, if Synod does not approve women bishops, Parliament will revoke the Church of England's exemption from the Equality Bill . Last July I picked up on some rumblings about the possibility that there might be a best before date on the Church of England's privilege to discriminate. I listened in Synod to Robert Key's speech giving us some insight into the likely response of Parliament to the discrimination inherent in the legislation around women bishops and was amazed that so few people seemed alert to the potential ramifications (see post). I will not reiterate my points, but do want to gloat a little that we keep up with things around here! I also suspect that, if Key is right, Field's early day motion may stand a fighting chance of success.

Nevertheless, this  motion has caused consternation and anger from some quarters, even from many who are wholeheartedly in support of women bishops and my own feelings about it are mixed. If the exemption from the Equality Bill is withdrawn, this could have serious ramifications for the Church of England in its struggles over the ordination of gay bishops. Commentators are right to suggest it is a slippery slope, because once Parliament prevents the Church from discriminating against women how can the way in which the Church discriminates against those in openly gay relationships possibly be justified? Some have also asked whether it will then also be unlawful for the Roman Catholic Church to exclude women from the priesthood and whether the same laws will apply to Muslims as well?

I actually do think that the objection to allowing the Church of England to legally discriminate against women could be justified on the grounds that the Church, as the state church, has a particular duty to uphold the law of the land and, given that Synod overwhelmingly supports the consecration of women bishops, for this to be blocked by a minority is unconscionable - as indeed it is.

But... it I do suspect that it is a slippery slope. I do not know how anyone could claim otherwise. It may be that the law may force us to grant women - and then gay people - full rights within the church. The law may compel us to move forward on human rights in spite of our procrastinations and divisions. I would dearly love to see the Church treat all human beings as equals in the eyes of God, but I would rather it walked there in grace (although that may be a tall order) than was compelled in fear and anger.

I am currently trying to decide whether to respond to  a WATCH request to petition my MP to support Frank Field's motion and would welcome any views. Now you may be in favour of women and gay bishops or you may not, that is not really the question. The question is more whether compliance by law is desirable, and whether the fall out at this present moment would be more than we could handle?


  1. Was not a court involve in the time of Jesus? What has changed? I write novels at www.jaygeenen.com or email jaygeenen.com. My novels are deep thought readings, like your work. Jay

  2. Equality legislation would drive a cart and horses through the Church of England, because we would then be forced to have gay bishops - not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but as we have seen in a recent hotel case, gay people are regarded as fireproof by the judiciary and are effectively untouchable.

  3. If this is really about revoking the exemption then I am 100% against it. There were good reasons to say that religious bodies make up their own rules and that these must be respected.

    What I would support, however, is a move to limit the exemptions to matters that are demonstrably of theological nature.
    So while the Roman Catholic church is 100% against women priests it is clear that its objections are rooted in its faith and should be honoured.

    But General Synod has clearly said that there are no theological obstacles to women priests and women bishops and is paving the way for women bishops. It will have to find means to accommodate those who still object on theological grounds. But for the church at large, this is no longer a theological question and should therefore not be covered by the Exemption.

  4. What's worrying for me is parliament (which has every appearance of being almost entirely secular) threatening to pass laws on what the church teaches, because this isn't just an issue of employment law (whatever side you might take).

    The fact that Frank Field is also a member of the general synod (according to Wikipedia) shows that he's quite keen on using his status as an MP to try and get his way whether his synod colleagues vote with him or not. That doesn't show a huge amount of respect for Synod does it.

    Imagine the outrage if the shoe was on the other foot, and an MP put forward an EDM to prevent the ordination of women as bishops!

  5. Since I'm not a citizen of the UK, my opinion may not be of any significance, but I will say that here in the US we went through and continue to go through "you can't legislate morality" arguments on a regular basis. During the Civil Rights days of the 1960's discrimination was outlawed but many churches did everything they could to exempt themselves from the law. Of course no church was established and I recognize the difference. But eventually people came to accept the fact that trying to enforce racial segregation in church is morally wrong.

    During the 1970's it took the bold step of some Episcopal bishops ordaining women anyway, even though the General Convention had not voted to do so, to get the Church over the hump of waiting until everybody was ready (which would never come). And so I believe that in many of these matters, sometimes the push has to come from outside the official leadership.

    Yes, there is fallout. There is anyway, which ever way you go. If you do not move forward, people get frustrated and leave. If you do, people get angry and leave. The question is not "what is the right thing to do?" but "what is the faithful thing to do?"

  6. Erika - thanks for that comment - I agree with it completely. I don't think the EDM is about revoking the exemption, more a threat not to abuse it! (Still have reservation though...)

    Peter B - what just or sensible grounds would there be for an EDM to try and ban the consecration of women when Synod has voted overwhelmingly in favour? Of course there would be outrage! Quite right too!

    Thanks for your comment Penelope. I was quite sure what you meant by "faithful" - faithful to God? the church? our principles? Wouldn't the faithful thing also be the right thing? (sorry if I am a little dim here.)

  7. Faithful to God, which doesn't always square with either the "law" or the church's policies. And of course people can and do disagree, since we don't always do a good job of understanding what God would have us do in a situation. Most of us have some sort of lens through which we interpret things (Micah 6:8 does it for many people I know). When we try to do the "right" thing, sometimes we mean "pragmatic" or "legal" - what would make the most people happy, or comply with the rules? But when we use faithful as a way to focus, we bring Gospel values into play and we ask the question, who is being denied full humanity here? Are the comfortable unhappy about being made uncomfortable while others are being denied justice? What would God have me do in this situation? So for me it's a matter of approach.