by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 48 - Jan 2013

Modern Church has supported the ministry of women since the 1920s. We welcomed the decision in 1992 to permit women priests; the introduction of women bishops is now overdue. On 20th November 2012, however, the Church of England's General Synod failed to achieve sufficient majorities to proceed.

The current discriminatory situation damages the Church of England. The long-term effects  of an all-male hierarchy have skewed the Church's vision and priorities as important issues have been ignored. We need the insights and energies of women in our leadership.

In addition, the continuing discrimination is immoral. It is clear to British society  in general that the Church of England, far from being a moral authority calling the nation to higher standards, is now defending its own inferior standards in the face of widespread social disapproval. The longer this situation continues the lower it will deserve to sink in the public's estimation.

It is therefore important to hasten the introduction of women bishops as soon as possible.  It is clear from the diocesan votes (42 out of 44) that the Church as a whole is overwhelmingly  in favour.

Anticipating the possibility of defeat in General Synod, negotiators have spent many years discussing alternative types of compromise to satisfy opponents. While supporters wanted women to be bishops on the same terms as men, opponents sought to enshrine in law a permanent distinction so that women could only ever be second class bishops. It is now clear that all attempts at compromise have failed.

From the Government's point of view it would be entirely appropriate to disestablish  a church which refuses to comply with equal opportunities legislation. Many of our members  sincerely hope this does not happen, but it would be impossible to mount a credible defence of the present situation.

Modern Church has not rushed to the mass media with statements of our views, disappointed though we were with the recent General Synod vote. The reason is another belief, central to our ethos: that open debate, free from threats of expulsion, is essential to a healthy society. In this instance open debate, with due attention to contemporary context and openness to new insights, tends to favour equality for women; the opposition comes from people who believe divine revelation is unchanging. Nevertheless we do not see ourselves as a lobbying organisation.

This is why our contributions to the debate - in our printed publications  and on our website - are not formal Modern Church statements of belief. The trustees usually try to avoid making such formal statements. On this occasion we came quite close to it and this article is the product of discussions to that effect; but in principle opponents of women bishops are free to join us and discuss their views with us in what, we hope, will be an honest, respectful and challenging atmosphere.

Nevertheless the debates have dragged on for decades and the direction of travel is quite clear.  It is time for the Church's leadership to acknowledge that it has proved impossible to satisfy opponents without substantially altering the concept of episcopacy. What happened in November did not reflect a lack of consensus in the Church.

The consensus in favour of women bishops is there, but was blocked by a small minority who used the Synod voting system to prevent change. How to overcome this block is the question that now needs addressing; but whatever the means, we should now move forward with the introduction of women bishops on exactly the same terms as men.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.