Church of England

In 10 years time women bishops will be no more


“Who is Libby Lane?” was the corporate cry that went up on Wednesday as she was introduced to the world as the Church of England’s very first woman bishop. A couple of days on and we haven’t learnt a great deal more. According to the press release, the new Bishop of Stockport is learning to play the saxophone, supports Manchester United and enjoys reading and doing cryptic crosswords. All very interesting, but it doesn’t tell us much about what sort of leader she’s going to be. During the first interview following her appointment, Isabel Hardman of the Spectator attempted to dig a bit deeper to find out what makes her tick:

She refuses to put herself on one side or another when I ask whether she sees herself as a liberal, a conservative, an evangelical, or something else. Speaking in that special Anglican way – a slightly slower-than-usual pace of words that linger a little longer over vowels, especially ‘God’, which becomes ‘Go-od’, and thoughtful-sounding pauses – she says:

‘I would describe myself as a Christian and as a passionate Anglican and that’s how I would describe myself. I have been formed and shaped by a whole breadth of the Church of England’s tradition and experience and been really enriched by that and I want to hold onto that breadth and the richness that I have got in Christ and all the traditions of the Church.’

It looks as though our first female bishop isn’t planning to court controversy any time soon, which on balance is probably a good thing thing for the sake of church unity and those who follow in her wake. Best to start of safe and steady until the dust settles. And that could take a little while.

So we’ve started off with a suffragan woman bishop, just to get us warmed up before the announcements of several diocesan bishops next year which are bound to include at least one of the hotly-tipped women priests who have been waiting patiently for their moment to come. We will then, at last, be able to get used to the joyous sight of both sexes in senior positions wearing pointy hats and carrying big sticks. Except, as things currently stand, there will be one place where that won’t happen.

The House of Lords is home to 26 of our Lords Spiritual. Only diocesan bishops can hold these positions, so Libby Lane won’t be popping up there anytime soon. Neither would any diocesan women bishops either. This is because there aren’t enough spaces to go round for those 40 bishops. At any time, up to 14 are waiting patiently for one of the 26 to hang up their vestments and head off into retirement (or become a peer in their own right). According to the Bishoprics Act of 1878 when a place in the Lords Spiritual becomes vacant it it the longest serving bishop who is given the spot. As it stands, our women bishops will be at the back of the queue and, judging by current turnover, we’d have about another seven years or so before a female diocesan bishop finally makes her way into the Lords. That’s a long time for women to effectively be excluded from an important aspect of the Church of England’s ministry.

This anomaly has been addressed by the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill, which has been squeezed in before Christmas by the Cabinet Office. The Bill sets out a 10-year fixed period when all women diocesan bishops are placed at the top of the list following their appointments so that they automatically enter the Lords ahead of any men. After that time everything reverts to the previous format.

From a certain point of view that might seem a bit harsh on Christopher Lowson, the Bishop of Lincoln, who is next in line to be elevated. But unless every appointment from now on is given to a woman, he’ll get his turn soon enough. It just might not be for a couple of years.

This would seem to be a small price to pay to have women bishops in the House of Lords. Is this Bill a form of positive discrimination? Well, yes, it is, but only if you don’t regard women being barred from the Episcopate as a form of discrimination in the first place. Having made the decision to treat men and women equally, the sooner the playing field is levelled, the better. Such a decision neutralises any unfriendly fire that could be aimed at the CofE over the next few years claiming that a small part of it is still a men-only club. It also wisely avoids setting any quotas or male-to-female ratios that might lead to some women, having been appointed as bishops, being accused of only being given the post to make up the numbers rather than it being entirely down to merit, which would do the Church no favours at all.

Barring any mischief, it looks as though this Bill will become law and – given that it has been collectively agreed by the House of Bishops and has broad support from the Government and Labour – it should be in place by March. We already know that the Bishop of Leicester will be retiring in July, so everything points to that being the date we gain a female Lord Spiritual, at long last.

Discussion of this Bill might seem rather dry and technical, but it provides the final piece in the jigsaw in the drawn-out and at sometimes bitter saga of the ordination of women in the Church of England. Once this is in place and we have our first handful of women bishops, hopefully we’ll be able to move on from the curious analysis that Libby Lane has received, unlike Philip North who was appointed as the new Bishop of Burnley last month (anyone notice?). When women bishops are able to talk confidently about their views without the need to veil their language to avoid upset or judgement, then we’ll know the Church has taken real steps forward.

In 10 years time, when the special measures are removed and being a bishop of either sex is perfectly normal and without distinction, we will have the perfect opportunity to ditch the term ‘woman bishop’. After all,for those who have been baptised into Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor are there male and female bishops, for all are one in Christ Jesus.

For those who choose to make such things an issue, there is of course the prospect of a first woman archbishop to look forward to…