The Church of England’s General Synod is an odd place. The Parliament of the established Church, it has the look of a Conservative Party conference, albeit with the centre-left leanings of a Labour one. It’s packed with characters straight from ‘The Vicar of Dibley’; the room is dotted with cassock-wearing monks, quiet knitters and snoozing vicars defeated by the sweltering July heat (although bishops live-tweeting from their iPads are now also common). Somewhat unfairly there is the perception that this is the preserve of just the socks and sandals brigade.
As the decision-making body of the Church, Synod members wade through all sorts of obscure legislation. From debates about the vestments clergy are allowed to wear during services to the finances of the Archbishops’ Council. Many of the discussions are so impenetrable to the untrained ear it feels like a meeting of Dickens’ Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit. But also in there was an encouraging debate around the ‘common good’ and a vote in favour of calling on political parties to recognize the role of churches in sustaining the good of society.
Despite not containing the usual ingredients for a media frenzy, this year’s Synod was swamped with camera crews as the world waited to see if the Church of England would finally allow women to become bishops. As they filed in for the crucial vote on Monday, flustered Synod members had to run the gauntlet of microphone-wielding TV news reporters seeking quotes for their lunchtime bulletins.
Since the narrow no-vote in 2012, which came as a surprise and embarrassment to many, the Church has been keen for another crack at it. Before Monday, Britain remained one of the only nations in the world with a part of Parliament (the Bishops in the House of Lords) from which women were barred.
Girls’ and women’s rights are increasingly on the global agenda, whether it be outrage at the brutal rape and murder of girls in India or the violent opposition of female education by the Islamist Boko Haram.
The Church has a prophetic tradition of speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalized, which the prohibition of women from the top jobs made more difficult. To give it its due, many progressives within the Church have long been campaigning to bring about change. As recently as February, Synod passed a motion on the subject of gender-based violence. As with all of the big social justice movements in history, people of faith have been both at the forefront leading the way while also having to be dragged along behind. It was the Christian MP William Wilberforce who helped bring an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Baptist minister Martin Luther King who led the fight for civil rights in the US and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who helped end South African apartheid.
After a long and, at times, emotional debate, in which some people made painful sacrifices putting personal theological views aside for the sake of unity, the Church of England finally got over the line and threw open the doors of the top jobs for people of both sexes. The first women bishops will hopefully bring a new understanding of what it is to be an oppressed minority and so may be better able to include other voiceless groups in the Church.
It may have taken too long and the Church may have suffered damaging PR in the process, but the progress of gender equality has moved forward, one socked and sandalled step at a time.
Joe Ware is the Church & Campaigns Journalist at Christian Aid.