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In defence of the CofE’s House of Laity

22 November 2012

Even friends of an Established church like myself – though I’m a Catholic – should think twice about the wisdom of the idea after the naked political interference in the affairs of the CofE in the Commons. The Speaker, who is non-religious/agnostic, was among the most overt in encouraging MPs to overturn the church’s decision not to approve women bishops. Perhaps, he suggested, they might like to refer the matter to the Equalities Minister (Maria Miller)? It was more or less to say that the equalities legislation should be brought to bear on the CofE when it comes to its way of appointing bishops. Ben Bradshaw too was all in favour of parliament getting involved. So was Chris Bryant, who is not only an ex-Anglican vicar, but by his own account an ex-Christian.

But there were a few actual practising Anglicans among the politicians who couldn’t wait to tell the Church what to do. The Prime Minister was, of course, one. ‘The Church should get with the programme,’ he declared, which pretty well ran counter to most of Christ’s teachings about fitting in with the world. But he did have a point in saying that ‘we should give them a prod’ – yep, as a communicant Anglican he could indeed have got involved in the House of Laity and played a part in the vote, or if otherwise engaged, got his mother to.

But it was Frank Field, astonishingly, who was among the most aggressive on the matter. I may say that if I have a parliamentary hero it is he, but his sanity on pensions does not extend to bishops. He wanted to impose the provisions of equalities legislation to the church on the basis that it had been given an exemption simply ‘to get its house in order’ on the matter and had failed to do so. Therefore, parliament should intervene. Catholics, he added kindly, could keep their opt-out on the basis that there didn’t appear to be popular demand in congregations for women bishops. Frank, dear Frank, a word to the wise? The Catholic Church isn’t a democracy. You may or may not buy the idea that it is guided by the Holy Spirit in the light of sacred tradition, but that’s the working premise. It’s not the Wee Frees, the Free Presbyterian church or other exemplary models of Christian direct democracy.


The Church of England, by comparison, is a democracy, with rather a fine balance between the interest groups within it. The bishops, clergy and laity each have a house or voting bloc and they are given due weight; a vote requires a working majority of two thirds within each of them. It gives due weight to the feelings of parishes as well as the top brass, which is, you might think, a good thing. Yet the entire secular world seems united in condemning the laity for its sheer cheek and impudence in voting the wrong way. There was an explosion of indignation across the press and broadcast media – the BBC didn’t even try for impartiality – notably among those organs which are in general most antipathetic towards Christianity and most indifferent to the CofE.

As I say, I am a Catholic myself so in theory none of this affects me. But  I feel a good deal of sympathy for those who took part in a vote in good faith on the basis of conviction and argument, only to find themselves condemned for their temerity in voting in a way that right-minded secular people wouldn’t. As the Archbishop of York, John Sentanu, pointed out, the vote was not lost on the basis of the principle of the thing: it was about the provision that was made for those with conscientious objections. They included Evangelicals, who object to women bishops on scriptural grounds, and Anglo-Catholics, who believe, inter alia, that women bishops would not represent Christ in his gender as well as his humanity – which is the case my own church advances. They are also concerned about the effects of reform on relations with Orthodox and Catholic churches. These are not negligible arguments. But opponents are being treated like heretics against the real contemporary orthodoxy of gender equality.

The secularists now lining up to threaten dire action against the Church of England now include Alistair Carmichael, the chief whip of the LibDems (that party pillar of Anglicanism), who suggests that bishops should be removed from the House of Lords, on the basis that they’re selected on a dubious basis. The issue, then, is becoming a useful stick for those in favour of disestablishment to beat the CofE.

The critical issue was not so much the principle of women bishops as the provision that was made for those who can’t in conscience accept it. If opponents are allowed to seek the oversight of a male bishop, then the rest of the Church can go its own way and ordain the Rev Lucy Winkett as soon as it likes. If the CofE is meant to be a broad church, then presumably that includes those who take a line on this issue that isn’t approved by The Independent and The Guardian – whose chief critic of the vote, Andrew Brown, incidentally, isn’t a believer either. The would-be women bishops, in a spectacular display of intolerance, earlier this year opted not to give any such leeway to those who in conscience can’t accept their ministry.

If the exercise of democracy in the Anglican Church really is that objectionable, then the more honest approach would be to scrap the three-tiered system in Synod, representing bishops, clergy and laity, and just have it run from the top like the Catholic Church. Anything must be better than having MPs – Catholics, unbelievers, the lot – running the show.

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  • The Church Mouse

    “The Church of England, by comparison, is a democracy, with rather a fine balance between the interest groups within it. ” Only someone who knows nothing about the Church of England could write that sentence.

    Surveys have repeatedly shown that 78-85% of the Church of England support women bishops. Yet in the House of Laity the number was just 64%. The two groups which organised against Women bishops (Forward in Faith and Reform) have membership totalling just 2,600 between them, yet command over 30% of votes in the House of Laity, supposedly representing the 2 million people who attend Anglican churches every month.

    The issue is not that the laity of the church exercised their democratic rights and expressed their view, but that they are so terribly unrepresentative, that the laity of the Church of England were shamefully overruled by a highly organised political minority.

  • Bloodknock

    I detest the views liberals of all persuasions, old women of all sexes and protestant sectarians. One day it will all be swept away.

  • David B

    It’s the liberal illeberal again. They believe they are right and that everyone should accept them and their views. But if you don’t then watch out

  • razzysmum

    I have just read the comments of the politicians concerning the CofE and no women bishops.
    Could someone not tell them the House of Commons was elected to sort out the country’s problems, not waste time behaving like outraged spinsters at a coffee morning.

  • razzysmum

    Oh, come on… if parliament let the church get away with independence then they will have a say in the much screaming gay marriage. That would never do, the posh boys would lose face if the church stood up and said NO! We MUST have everyone welded to the equality and conformity of doing what we are told and no argument.

  • Kevin

    “The Church should get with the programme”

    Cameron is out of touch if he thinks anyone will respect this as grown-up language.

  • CraigStrachan

    “that women bishops would not represent Christ in his gender as well as in his humanity”

    So can women MPs represent men in their gender? (Whatever that means).

    • TomTom

      Women Bishops = Oxymoron. Best to call them High Priestess

    • Colonel Mustard

      Most women MPs don’t represent me. I find too many of them strident zealots for single issue agendas rather than concerned with the welfare of all. They lack circumspection, but then so do most male MPs, and they tend to deploy emotional blackmail more than male MPs – although the latter are increasingly learning the art. To be honest, the whole lot of them feel like an alien occupation of the gentle, decent country I was born in.

      • CraigStrachan

        “the gentle, decent country I was born in”

        I suspect then that you are either a foreigner or a romantic. And I’m certain that you are a chauvinist.

        • TomTom

          No more a chauvinist than Harriet Harman, Liz Truss or Angela Eagle or Lynne Featherstone……

        • Colonel Mustard

          No I am not a foreigner. I am one of those whose family longevity under the oak tree causes Mr Clegg such vexation. Yes, I am a romantic, undoubtedly, and see no shame in that when it stands in the shadow of bloodless, flint-eyed socialism. A chauvinist? Well, even if we go by the subverted, left-wing interpretation of Wiki then no. I do not believe in the superiority of men although I am not too timid to assert that men and women are different and the socialist dream of making them not just equal but identical is deeply flawed and deeply damaging to society.

          Peddle the idea that this was not once a gentle, decent country to those who know no better. I was there and you cannot fool me.

          • CraigStrachan

            You were there? But not in Glasgow would be my guess!

            • Colonel Mustard

              No, I was referring to England all along, my country, the one without a parliament.

      • JamesdelaMare

        Thank you. Well put and regrettably true. However isn’t the reason why it has gone that way is that very many male MPs and clergy have been effeminised and they are either trying to be polite to the feminists instead of being critical, and they don’t want to be perceived as ‘dinosaurs from another age’? That they line up with the equalities policies being pursued by feminists with a vengeance and an obsession not because they believe in it, but because they no longer have the courage to say “No!” to anything? And those policies are in fact spurious covers to simple ambition?

        • Colonel Mustard

          I think the gender war is an artificial construct to achieve an artificial purpose. Like most items on the socialist agenda it creates more harm than good, creates hatred where there was none and is ultimately divisive. I agree that wimps proliferate in public life and feel compelled to spout groupthink rather than honesty in order to survive. Bland, luke-warm soup and not a fiery stew, so all the passion must be artificially constructed rather than roar from the heart.

    • Fr. James Mather

      MPs are not sacraments

      • CraigStrachan

        But they are representatives.

  • eeore

    One wonders if the program to which David Cameron refers is to kill the church?

  • TomTom

    Funny that Bercow was brought up in a Jewish household and then joined The Monday Club Repatriation Committee before swinging the other direction – Vicar of Bray has nothing on Bercow. As for Chris “underpants” Bryant former CofE Vicar and Conservative Constituency Agent, one has to question his sanity too. Then again he has a BBC past. It would be great for the Commons to have a go at the Church of England – it would take our minds off their failure to confront the EU – and the Church needs Persecution to thrive.

    A full frontal assault by Politicians on Christians and Churchgoers would be fantastic ! We need to get back to the 17th Century and revisit the foundations of this parliamentary system. After all if they mess with the Church of England the Monarchy collapses and the Act of Union with Scotland falls away. It could be Cameron’s greatest contribution to the UK – the destruction of the 17th Century Settlement in 1689 and the chance to revisit the issues of the English Civil War and The Covenanters.

    It would be fantastic to turn Europe upside down and create a New Europe and have a proper Revolution in England……Go Cameron Go !!!

  • Robert_Eve

    ‘The BBC didn’t even try for impartiality’ – surprise me!!

  • Richard 111

    I am very much a lapsed Anglican, in part because of the way the Church handled the case of one of its senior clergy whose hand was trapped in the till. If I were still a believer, I would consider the “power of prayer” or “the Holy Spirit moving in some mysterious way” may have had an influence on this decision.

    It maybe, just maybe, God thought that what was being proposed was not quite right. On the other hand, God may not be bothered at all in which case it brings into question the very concept of the Church. However, if the CofE becomes just a mortal pressure group, and not as they say “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise”, then its days are truly numbered.

  • Alastair Harris

    I loved this statement “the BBC didn’t even try for impartiality”. But then it would be a miracle if they did.
    THere does seem to be a trend of politicians thinking democracy means agreeing with what they say. Its tempting to see it as something that only happens in brussels, but clearly its not. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband seem to have it in equal measures.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Absolutely correct. And the pernicious way that trend is deployed is in the deceit that their pronouncements conform to “what the public want” without any real test of that. So they imagine “what the public want” to conform to their wishes and then announce those wishes as demands. I thought the reaction of Parliament to the voting was disgraceful and the behaviour more like a politburo. Cameron’s own comment was crass, ignorant and faintly sinister.

      • JamesdelaMare

        Cameron’s recent comments on expediting the recovery of the economy by cutting back planning rules and involving the government to over-rule objections and local interests in large schemes are also sinister, indeed even more than sinister. He made out that we are to go back to the type of arrangements we had during the war to defeat Hitler. However his suggestions have much more in common with Hitler’s policies and attitude towards promoting the German state between 1933 and the outbreak of war – a period not many will now remember as it was so overshadowed by events after 1939.

  • Jebediah

    Agreed religion is weird. A religious conviction does not necessarily follow modern equality rules. If you go down the road of dictating to the Anglican church then presumably we will legislate to create female catholic priests, female imans and rabbis. Seems unlikely. There are many areas of the established religions that fall foul of modern thinking. Religion is not, sadly, logical it is based on faith.
    If you mess with a bit of it, you must mess with it all.

    • telemachus

      How true.
      The Anglican Communion has messed up, not only by voting down women bishops, but also concentrating on this rather than mission and care.
      Welby, as shown yesterday, has the mettle to lead them back.

      Not Bercow who has his hands full at home and certainly not the vapid PM

      • TomTom

        The Anglican “Communion” is based on the British Empire with ECUSA buying status bwith its money despite being a fringe group in the USA. What we have is THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND which is not a subsidiary of a US Cult especially since ECUSA derived from the Church in Scotland not the Church of England following the War of Independence when it failed to respect The Act of Supremacy

  • Harold Angryperson

    The chief problem for the would-be meddlers in the Commons is that they can’t really compel the Church Of England to have women bishops without forcing all other religions operating in the UK to allow senior female clerics as well. I can think of one religion in particular that would be VERY upset by this.

    • TomTom

      There is a campaign in Europe to permit female genital mutilation so they might be satisfied with that as a quid pro quo

  • commonsenseobserver

    Granted, you can hardly blame over-enthusiastic politicians when the Church remains in communion with another that accepts clearly heretical doctrines on issues as fundamental as the Trinity, or even monotheism itself. Even the Episcopal Church of the United States can do it, why can’t the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? 😛

  • Theodoxia

    This is concerning in a number of ways.

    The CofE has gone through its own democratic process and rejected the adoption of female bishops. Some people, both inside and outside the Church, are jumping up and down in anger because they don’t like the result, and want to impose their own will on that democratic process. What other democratic outcomes will they seek to overturn?

    Secondly, we are seeing politicians trying to interfere directly in the government of a church (granted, the established church). If they get their way it can only embolden them to try the same in the government and polity of other churches.

    • telemachus

      Rowan Williams and others are worried that the decision will marginalise the Church

      Government interference will not only fail but enhance the appeal of the church particularly to the young

      Remember Lech Walesa and Jaruzelski’s opposition to him and his church
      This not only failed but gave us the greatest Pope for a millenium

  • Rhoda Klapp

    If there is any demand or justification in the reported words of Jesus for the church as we know it, I don’t know where it is.

    Howver, my most important complaint is that ‘Synod’ seems to have followed ‘conference’ and lost its article. It just does not sound right, so it must be left.

    • TomTom

      There is no concept of “Church” in The Bible simply “Congregations” which is why the first 70 years after Christ’s death Christians worshipped in Synagogues and the Sabbath was Saturday. The idea of “Congregations” is evident in Paul’s Epistles and it would be better to return to “congregations” without Bishops who were simply put there to control from the centre – and why we need 149 Bishops when we had fewer when there was an Empire and no telecommunications or motorways is unclear….they are an Overhead Charge loaded onto every Congregation to fund a Corporate Headquarters

  • Colonel Mustard

    What happened has been a meme for what has happened in Britain as a whole. The tyranny of a braying socialist-led mob to which, incredibly, a supposedly conservative Prime Minister adds voice. You forget to mention that Bryant is also an ex-Common Purpose employee, although presumably still a vigilante for that organisation. And it sounds very much as though Cameron’s “programme” is just an extension of that organisation’s alternative and very top down religion which unlike the CofE is becoming compulsory for all citizens.

    Group think – thinking the “correct” way and overtly demonstrating that you do by what you say – is with us and has been for some time, most notably demonstrated in Parliament and by politicians on our TV screens. The age of debate is over. The age of dissidence has begun. Prepare for a long hard winter of persecution and even martyrdom if you don’t conform.

    • Coffeehousewall

      Agreed. This is the most anti-Christian state we have experienced here in the UK since the persecution of Catholics ended.

      • telemachus

        We do not want empty piety here


        Melanie is correct

        We do not want the Godless Piety of the Government interfering either

        Not the licentious 30-bedding Deputy PM

        Nor the vapid believe-in-nothing PM


        We hanker for the days of God-fearing politicians who had deep faith but did not wear it on their sleeves and did not interfere in personal faith whether Anglican, Catholic, Non-Conformist, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.
        Such giants who took their faith as the son of the manse.
        Or who prayed with the most poweful man on earth to deliver us from Saddam but refused to talk about it because he did not do God.

        • Fergus Pickering

          But my old darling the son of the manse is an atheistt. Did he not tell you?

          • telemachus

            Believe not the media
            His moral integrity shone through

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