Editorial: Woman trouble
The solution to the Church of England's problems with women bishops and gay marriage is not to modernise Anglicanism, but to cut it loose, so it can argue about what Jesus would do without bothering the rest of us. It's time to disestablish, says Caspar Melville
So the Government's new plans on gay marriage include the provision that the Church of England is to be protected, by law, from having to offer equal marriage (with equality law being rewritten to accommodate this form of discrimination in the name of religious freedom). It's a fatuous decision, which caves in to a rump of anachronistic evangelicals in the Church, that comes hard on the heels of another – the general Synod’s refusal to allow female bishops.
Both decisions embody a failure to recognise the moral necessity of equality, and the government and the Church thoroughly deserve the backlash they are facing over them. And yet I find the response to these decisions has surprised me, especially from non-believers. It seems some are baffled that the Church would be old fashioned and out of step with contemporary society, and they're acting as if they'd like to fix that.
For example, a petition was doing the rounds among secularists the day after the Synod’s bishop decision, demanding that until women bishops were allowed to serve, the Church’s male bishops should be prevented from taking up their 26 seats in the House of Lords. As our News Editor pointed out at the time, this is a tactical blunder. While it appears to be addressing the equality deficit in the Church, it takes for granted, even strengthens, the claim that bishops have a right to a seat in the upper chamber. Whether male or female, they do not.
After all what, really, should we should we expect from the Anglican Church? Despite the furious modernising of Church discourse over the past century – an increasingly futile attempt to halt the precipitous decline of church attendance and allegiance, which as the just released 2011 Census shows, is collapsing at an amazing and increasing rate – we should remember what the Church is actually for. Its job is to preserve and promote an ancient tradition and pass off a set of literally incredible notions as if they were the, ahem, gospel truth. That they have failed to live up to contemporary values of equality in the workplace seems entirely consistent with their core mission and hardly the worst of their sins at that.
The Church of England has gone a long way to encourage us to forget this.
For those of us who don’t go to church the predominant image of Anglicanism remains that of the moped-riding “Kumbayah” vicars in anorak, charming church fêtes and a determination not to proselytise that seems almost pathological. No vicar has ever tried to convince me not to be godless, or even seemed to disapprove. Of the Anglicans I’ve spoken to during the course of my tenure at New Humanist – the Rev Richard Coles, Francis Spufford, Linda Woodhead, Richard Holloway – I have yet to find one who doesn't accept evolution and the Big Bang, who seems really to believe the virgin birth or the Assumption, or who puts great stock in miracles or angels. We have been taken in by The Vicar of Dibley and perhaps we should thank the evangelical troublemakers who have popped up to defeat woman bishops and gay marriage for reminding us what the C of E is really all about.
These issues, I submit, are not really any of our business. Or at least they should not be.
These debates are being argued on terms we atheists don’t accept and cannot participate in. For the Church it’s not a matter of fairness or the law, it’s down to what the Bible says and what God wants – as it should be for a religion. We should be able merely to watch from the sidelines as factions inside the church defend their position as the one more in keeping with this or that verse from the Bible, this or that action preferable because it was what Jesus would have done. Such debates may be good sport but they mean absolutely nothing to those of us who do not accept that the Bible or the supposed word of God are the arbiters of what is right.
But of course we can’t ignore them by virtue of the fact that the C of E is our national church and granted a role in our governance. Which is why I propose that we leave the arguments over what God wants to those on speaking terms with him, while we attend to other things. Things like reigniting a campaign that has flagged of late but should get a shot in the arm from the gay marriage fudge, the female bishops farrago and the census results. Let’s seize the moment and take this opportunity to lay to rest the canard that the nation needs a church to which 93.7 per cent of the population are indifferent. Disestablishment, now!