The Church of England’s vote against women bishops does a disservice to half the population.
Yesterday was a sad and shameful day for the Church of England and therefore for the country of which it is the established religion. It took 12 years of deliberation and prayer for the Church to arrive at its decision on appointing women as bishops, and yet it got that decision dreadfully wrong.
For years to come yesterday’s vote will be felt in the pews and the institutions of the Church as a terrible moral and political failure. The disappointment felt keenly by those on the inside who wanted change will be felt keenly too by those not involved with the Church but who nonetheless see it as a leader for reform and justice.
The Supreme Governor of the Church of England is a woman. In communities up and down the country the Church is sustained by women. To all of these people the Synod yesterday showed disrespect. It did a serious disservice to half the population.
What happened yesterday will be horribly familiar to leaders of political parties that have lost their way. The process was hijacked by a small but highly motivated group of fundamentalists more interested in factional organisation, textual analysis and strict orthodoxy than in the real world and how people live their lives. When such people take over any body it drifts away from common sense.
It happened to the Labour Party in the 1980s and to the Republican Party with the Tea Party in the last four years. The only solution is for moderates to organise themselves and turn their defeats into victories.
This decision was not the one wanted by a majority of the Synod. The Bishops almost all voted to allow women to join their number and 42 of the 44 diocese had voted for it too. It was blocked because there were just enough members of the laity to do the blocking. And these people were not representatives of those who line the pews on the Sabbath.
What this shows, as does the margin of defeat, is that the proposal to have women bishops could have prevailed but did not. The leadership of the Church failed in a fairly straightforward job of political organisation and moral guidance. It has been amateurish and shambolic. And sadly, this provides the epitaph for the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury.
From the time he was appointed, Rowan Williams has known that winning over the Synod on women bishops would be his great test. But his leadership was too cerebral, too absorbed with his own intellectual anguish. And this is the lamentable result.
Justin Welby will have been hoping for a better start that this. It could, after all, hardly be worse. But at least it provides the new Archbishop with an opportunity to show his mettle. And there are encouraging signs that he may be equal even to the huge task he now faces.
The first thing he has to do is to bring back a simpler, clearer proposal and win. The earliest conceivable time will be in three years when the next Synod is elected and that should be his aim. Perhaps it might take five years. There can be no question of spending a decade slowly pushing the boulder up the hill.
Beyond this though, the incoming Archbishop will need to confront the terrible harm that the vote will have done to the prestige and perceptions of the Church of England. He will need to find words to assuage the anger and address the bewilderment of parishioners at prayer.
And he will need to find a way to ensure that when he next tries to use the weight of his office to give a moral lead — for instance to lecture bankers on their obligations — that weight is still there to use. He should not simply assume that it is. For such weight has to be earned.