The consequences of the women bishops vote start to roll in

7 12 2012

gay-churchs600x600The Prime Minister has just announced that the government’s legislation introducing marriage for same-sex couples will include provision for religious organisations to host such ceremonies. This is a small shift in the detail of the legislation, but it represents a deeper readjustment of the government’s view towards the Church of England, and it is a direct consequence of the Women Bishops vote in November.

The Church of England, as the established Church has a difficult relationship with any government. Very often, as is right and proper, they have differing positions on issues – not just churchy issues, but big secular ones too. The war in Iraq, say, or indeed benefits cuts. When the relationship is working, the two institutions pull each other back to a fundamentally reasonable centre ground.

Unfortunately the relationship depends on the two institutions – the Church and the Government – never drifting too far away from a shared definition of that ‘reasonable centre ground’. A few weeks ago, the Church of England failed to approve legislation that would make Women Bishops. The response from the rest of the country was disgust. Indeed, most inside the Church were just as insulted by the decision. It was a shift to the sidelines.

Disgust and general approbation, though, is not something to which Christians should be completely averse – Christ himself was so controversial, and so upset the conventional thinking that he was crucified. However, the women bishops vote was both wrong theologically (I reject the argument that we are upholding Christian values through excluding women from the episcopacy) and strategically.

I am relatively relaxed about Gay Marriage – I would never campaign for it, but then could never bring myself to oppose it. However, many of the traditionalists who voted against women bishops have done themselves a great disservice because they care rather more about protecting the institution of marriage than they do about women bishops.

The Prime Minister’s original position not only respected the right of churches to opt out of Gay Marriage (I haven’t yet heard anybody suggest that churches should be forced to conduct gay marriages), but including a legal ban making it non-negotiable. His new position won’t change things very much for the Church of England. The only shift is that people like the Quakers, who choose to recognise Gay Marriage, will be able to do so.

Nevertheless, we can see a hardening of the government’s position which is a direct consequence of the women bishops vote. They are less interested in accommodating the needs of a group of people who increasingly look like nutters on the sidelines.

The great tragedy is that there are some decent (non-bigoted) arguments against redefining marriage to include gay relationships. Unfortunately the debacle of women bishops, which has served nobody, means they are likely never to be listened to again.




5 responses

7 12 2012
Noah's Ark Supplies (@Iceship)

Do you want to unpack the ‘decent arguments against gay marriage’? I ask sincerely since I’m sure you wouldn’t just trot out the bad ones, and it would be interesting to see how it looks from a non-activist-but-pretty-damn-liberal perspective.

7 12 2012

Interesting question. Here’s a stab. I haven’t thought about at great length, and don’t subscribe to all/many/any of these positions, but I think we ought to take them seriously:

1) Marriage is currently defined as being between a man and a women. Using the law to change that would be a little bit like giving men equal birthing rights – all very well in the newspapers, but in practice meaningless because the law doesn’t have the authority to change that definition.

2) This is not a question of substance, but of perception. By redefining marriage we don’t improve the rights or lives of anybody. We just change the perception that gay people are not equal. If that perception exists, there’s probably something more grounded we need to do about it, like tackling homophobia in schools, or in the Daily Mail.

3) To covet the word marriage is for the gay community to adhere to hetero-normative understandings of what it means to be in a long-term, committed and monogamous relationship. Marriage has been undermined and corroded over the years. To reject it would be a positive step forwards, and enable gay couples to define their relationships (and families) without the baggage of thousands of years of badly-treated women.

7 12 2012
Noah's Ark Supplies (@Iceship)

Mmm -mmm: none of those seem enormously strong. The thing is (unlike the gory, unequivocal act of giving birth) that ‘marriage’ like ‘money’ actually only exists because we all say that we believe it does. Hence, perception really is everything. On your second point, I suspect that a bit of definition shifting is just what would make things more difficult for the Daily Mail: ‘activists’ ‘running campaigns’ (against bullying or prejudice or what have you) are always themselves attackable: it’s much harder to continue to go after a group of people who have the same ceremony as everyone else. The whole market in outing people and going ‘Whoa isn’t that bad!’ ( think of Russell Harty or Nigel Hawthorne) has completely dried up, not because the Fail repented, but because there was so plainly no public appetite for it.

The third argument has of course been enthusiastically embraced by a vast swathe of the straight public who have dodged marriage in ever rising numbers. And why shouldn’t they throw off the patriarchal burden. But I’m not sure that’s a very viable line for a Christian to go after – the argument you’re chanelling suggests that it’s bad for gays to have long term monogamous relationships.

My own suspicion is that the thing being fought over really is a profound change, but that those who oppose can’t honestly explore the real gut triggers, because some of it isn’t very elevated stuff – and some of it is just a dislike, as we age, of embracing change. How we define things shapes how we think: the grandchildren of many churchgoers may not simply disagree with their forebears about ‘gay marriage’ – the shaping of language over a lifetime may mean that they can only with difficulty imagine the distinction that is now being made. It fixes a change of hierarchies in the language, in the OED – patriarchy will fall, and there won’t be a way back from that. Fortunately, of course, in my view!

8 12 2012
Jae Kay (@JaeKay)

I’m not sure this vote is heavily influenced by the women Bishop’s row. The Church of England’s own legal opinion given to the Government during the equal marriage consultation said that excluding any religious involvement would leave the law up for a, likely successful, challenge under several parts of the European Convention of Human Rights.

What the Government is doing here is simply making the law far more stable and accepting the inevitable (and listening to the Church of England’s advice!).

11 12 2012
John McKeown

Interesting thought James, the synod vote against women bishops may turn out to be a Pyrrhic “victory” for the right-wing.

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