The Secular Charter and women (as) bishops

The following is an extension of the previous post, with a version published in the latest edition of The Leicester Secularist.


Women bishops vote copy(Image adapted from:

According to the information provided by the National Secular Society, secularism is primarily defined as ‘… the strict separation of the state from religious institutions’, with equality before the law following therefrom. Consequently, conditions b to j of the ‘The Secular Charter’ (as adopted at the NSS’s 2011 AGM) cannot follow without the first:

a) There is no established state religion.

Following this year’s AGM last month, it is announced that this to-be-finalised Charter will form the focus of a member consultation commencing early in the New Year. Meanwhile, as long as there remains an ‘established state religion’, the (lay component of the) General Synod of the Church of England can remain unconcerned by condition b of the Charter as it stands:

b) There is one law for all and its application is not hindered or replaced by religious codes or processes.

In other words, the Church is legally entitled to continue unhindered its flouting of the laws on sexual discrimination. Which I read as meaning that, were church to be dis-established, then it would no longer be permitted to bar women from promotion to high office.

But wait – ‘The (proposed) Secular Charter’ also stipulates that, without an established religion:

j) The state does not intervene in the setting of religious doctrine or the running of religious organisations.

This seems to read paradoxical, in that, in a fully secular society, the Anglican church’s continued barring of women bishops would remain legitimate, because it is run according to the (voting) rules and regulations of any discriminating private members club.

It would seem, then, that secularism is (would be) pretty ineffectual here. As is, the church is allied to the state as the established state church, but is not bound by the laws of the state. But then, in a fully, religion-dis-established, secular state, it would (according to condition j of the current Charter) still be free to bar women from promotion to the bishopric.

It is reasonable to predict that the Synod will come round (the majority already has; just not a sufficiently large enough majority of the House of Laity), and we will see women bishops before too long. Meanwhile, some of the casuistry at work is fascinating. How women, such as the House of Laity’s Alison Ruoff and others, can shamelessly endorse traditional discrimination against women. Ruoff has been reported as ‘one of the undecideds’ who eventually decided to vote against “… to make sure that we can walk together as one Church of England… without splits, without divisions.” Funny, but whenever I’ve seen her occasional TV pop-ups, she has always been conservatively firm in her out-and-out dismissal of the notion. I wonder according to whose conscience did she vote?

And those, such as Anne Atkins, who claim to want to see women bishops, but nevertheless defend the outcome because it is not for the church to turn away those who vote according to their conscience. Because, the argument goes, not all those ‘nays’ were actually against, but they voted so (according with Ruoff) in order that their minority brethren who can’t/won’t countenance the consecration of women would not become an isolated fringe.

But then there is our Prime Minister, who, after insisting that the Police and Crime Commissioners recently elected on an average turnout of 15% do have a mandate, again shows his PR sophistry in lambasting the lay 36% (which, incidentally, equates to his mandate-preventing share of the vote at the last general election) as not “with the programme.”

Is this skewed synodical voting system, ostensibly preventing a simple majority leaving behind a significant minority, so designed in order to limit the possibility of politically embarrassing schism? A few more lay votes the other way, and the minority would have lost the day… and if they decided to sulk and walk, it would not be so bad as, say, a 49% losing minority, which would be a big bunch of potential splitters. The system would seem to be biased towards cohesion over progression, with the latter rendered glacial. And, hence, the whole edifice becomes more irrelevant.

Meanwhile, minority conservative adherence to cherry-picked Biblical literalism carries the day over the ‘progressive’ (relatively speaking) majority, and effects the continued overriding of the employment law of the land with impunity. Although this cringing episode is further argument for dis-establishment, condition j of the current National Secular Society Charter would here seem to endorse the status quo.


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