A simple truth about women bishops

is the BBC's religious affairs correspondent. Twitter: @pigottrobert

Explaining religion to a secular society is often difficult, but the Church of England’s fractious debate about women bishops makes our duty of accuracy and impartiality a particular challenge.

Theological arguments are generally unfamiliar to an ‘unchurched’ audience, and often seem arcane. The disagreements, although intense, are more about degrees than absolutes, and most of them are voiced in a language that is, to most listeners and viewers, almost opaque.

The Church of England is moving with painful slowness towards a decision about whether to create women bishops. The final vote was to have been cast in York last week, but a dispute over what concessions to make to traditionalists led to that debate being postponed until November.

In reporting this marathon seven-year debate, as in reporting religion in general, I have worked on the principle that religion is a social phenomenon with beliefs that we should neither assume to be right or wrong. Religion is important because it’s something that people do which affects their life and wider society, and sheds a great deal of light on the human condition along the way.

That means understanding it with religious insight, but explaining it in secular terms. But that isn’t always easy.

I lost count long ago of the number of times I have listened to a good clip emerging from a Church contributor only to hear it founder in the final moments. This, from a fierce opponent of women bishops, just before our slot on BBC1’s One O’Clock News, was a recent example:

“We fear that – disastrously for all - the Church is ready to abandon its centuries-old willingness to include all shades of opinion,” she started out promisingly, “but different integrities must be allowed to safeguard scriptural fidelity and sacramental assurance, or vital elements of Anglicanism will be lost.” 

Even in secular language, the brevity and clarity that radio and television demand make it hard to explain fraught and complex issues – and not just women bishops.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggested a few years ago that some elements of Sharia were bound to be absorbed into English secular law, it became headline news.

It’s well known that Dr Williams regretted that the public conversation took place at a more basic and abbreviated form than it had in front of his learned audience of lawyers.

There were even some complaints about the running text headline on News 24 (as it was then): “Archbishop backs Sharia as part of English law.” Lambeth Palace might have preferred something like “Archbishop in nuanced contribution to debate on Sharia.”

For the sake of simplicity, we tend to render issues as binary choices: ‘women bishops, yes or no?’ In fact there is general agreement in the Church of England that there should be women bishops but that traditionalists who do not want them should be ‘provided for’. The argument is about the concessions to make to traditionalists who can’t accept oversight by a woman bishop. The real question is actually ‘women bishops - yes, but how?’

The comprehension we need to achieve demands extreme simplification - with such statements as ‘some “High Church” traditionalists insist that, because Jesus chose only men to be his apostles, only men should lead the Church,’ or ‘some conservative Evangelicals interpret the Bible as teaching that only men should take leadership roles.’

The temptation is to find traditionalists and conservatives to articulate those views even though they represent only a small percentage either of Synod members or the wider Church. 

As in all political organisations, there are parties and pressure groups at either extreme, always available to articulate the radical view. Church lobbies can be as ruthless and effective as those in secular life. 

The real decision about women bishops is being made by a larger middle ground, but their more nuanced contributions to the debate are likely to leave many viewers and listeners baffled.

Having set out our binary choice – for or against women bishops – we bring to bear the BBC’s commitment to impartiality. And in this instance the two sides seem ill-matched.

On one side you have the overwhelming consensus among Anglicans that women should be bishops; that it’s somewhat overdue; and that a vote against the legislation would represent a deeply embarrassing failure for the Church. Arguments about the fundamental need for equality and ending discrimination are easily understood outside the Church.

On the other side are views held by a diminishing minority who question whether women should, or even CAN, be bishops. Some, who place more significance on Jesus’ incarnation in male form, say they doubt whether women are able to be ordained and, in a sense, to ‘stand in’ for him. They say they cannot be sure that when a woman blesses the bread and wine of the sacrament of Holy Communion that it truly takes on the ‘real presence’ of Jesus, or, more literally, his body and blood. And they insist that, were a woman bishop to ordain a male priest, they could not be sure that he was genuinely a priest and able to carry out priestly functions.

Should we give such arguments equal treatment with those for gender equality and leave listeners and viewers to make up their mind? 

In other prominent debates rendered by the media as binary issues, such as that about climate change, the question arises as to whether each ‘side’ should have equal time. When the great preponderance of scientific opinion seems to be that global warming is man-made, should sceptics be given shorter shrift?

Viewers and listeners might feel that the truth of climate change is capable of scientific investigation in a way that beliefs about women bishops are not. In the supernatural context of religion, perhaps more than in the secular world, all long-held traditional views are valid. 

And, after all, aren’t the objections to women priests some of the most interesting aspects of the whole story?