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Vestments into Frocks

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Bishop's babes: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and women priests celebrating the 20th anniversary of female ordination

Twenty years of absurd wrangling separated the ordination of women priests from the decision to let them become bishops. At last, says Andrew Brown

It is difficult to remember just what a thrill, involving sex, transgression, and an obscure sense of sacrilege it was to see a woman priest for the first time. It was also, in this country, sometimes illegal. Because the law of the Church of England is actually the law of England, too, any woman who celebrated the Eucharist in a church before 1994 was doing something against the law, for which she could have been punished or at least sued.

So it was that in about 1987 I took the Tube with my then wife out to the grim little chapel of Queen Mary College off the Whitechapel Road in east London to find a congregation of about thirty celebrating Holy Communion with an ordained American woman priest. (Although the university chapel was then being used ecumenically by Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics, it was owned by the Church of England, and the Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, drew the line at a woman priest of any kind and subsequently ordered her to stop holding services there.) The congregation sat on the floor, in a circle, holding hands. I stood to take notes.

My wife settled nervously into the circle on the floor between two substantial lesbians, who reached out their hands for her to hold. She took them gingerly. She was entirely in favour of this in principle but the practice was new to her. If you were an Anglican in London then, gay men were everywhere – her vicar had shocked his congregation into silence by taking a holiday in San Francisco and coming back with a woman as his bride – but lesbians were almost invisible. The idea of a lesbian transgender priest into heavy metal – and I know one in Manchester now – would have been almost unthinkable, or rather thinkable only as a grotesque parody out of Peter Simple, created to provoke paroxysms of harrumphitude in readers of The Daily Telegraph.

Yet it turns out that something being unthinkable is actually a weak defence against it happening. Once numbers of intelligent people have begun to think it, you need a better reason, and in the end there wasn’t one. John Habgood, Archbishop of York from 1983–1995, a thoughtful conservative who became important later in the story, once told the Synod that there were two grounds for objecting to women. One, the Pope didn’t like them – but then the Pope didn’t believe there were any priests in the Church of England, male or female, so that wasn’t much of a guide for anyone who believed in the Church of England at all; the other, that St Paul had said some very first-century things about women, condemning their hair, and their unspeakable tendency to instruct men in church. But that argument, he said, relied on the belief that women were essentially inferior to men, which no modern person could believe.

Habgood’s arguments convinced about eighty per cent of the Church of England by reducing his opponents to absurdity. This was not really a church for people who would rather be Roman Catholics: the Roman Catholic church

already supplied that market rather better. Nor was it a church for bible-bashing evangelicals. There was such a tradition within the church but in the late Eighties it was marginalised and unfashionable. No, it was a church for reasonable people who did not believe unduly in either the Pope or St Paul. So there was no widespread resistance to women priests except on the grounds that such things had never been known before.

And in 1992, when the Church of England voted that women might be priests, a shock ran right round the synod chamber. It was an electric moment, but – as often happens with shock treatment – the effect was to make the patient forget why and how he had ended up there.

The most honourable opponents left at once. They had believed that the Church of England was not a body

capable of making women priests without the consent of the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox. When they discovered that a decisive majority disagreed with them, they went to join the kind of church they had thought they already belonged to. There were only a couple of hundred such people – the most noticeable were the Conservatives John Gummer, Ann Widdecombe and Charles Moore. But we were endlessly threatened with the prospect of thousands of priests leaving to become Roman Catholics.

In the event, a couple of hundred did so, over a period of twenty years. Some returned when they discovered that in the Roman Catholic church you were expected to obey your orders; others were turned away at the gate because they would not abandon their boyfriends.

The disruption over women was intimately related to the disruption over gay clergy. Treating both women and openly gay clergy as normal overthrew the traditional pattern of manly men and womanly women and much of the most furious resistance came from women and gay men who had accommodated the old system and thrived within it. Even today, four of the people who lectured the Synod in the debate about women bishops about how they needed churches untainted by women teaching in them were women. But in the earliest days the weight of the argument did not come from the ‘headship evangelicals’, as those who take their cue from St Paul are known. It came from the men whose source of authority was the Pope. The Anglo-Catholic party now seems as remote and absurd as the British Israelites but until 1992 they ran the church.

There is a lovely story told me by the novelist A N Wilson, who in the early Eighties was quite intimately involved in the agitation against women priests. He went down to Brighton with Charles Moore so the two men could work on a pamphlet about how the church was in danger and as they walked along the seafront spotted a priest with whom Wilson had attended a theological college in Oxford. He wanted to call out across the road, but remembered at the last moment that the only name he knew him by was ‘Gertie’. So he remained silent.

The Anglo-Catholic movement was saturated in this kind of camp. The whole thing was built on knowing certain things and at the same time not knowing them. They knew the Pope did not suppose they were priests, but at the same time managed not to know it, and to believe that one day he would see that he’d been wrong. That is what they thought of as believing in Papal authority. They knew that many of them were actively and enthusiastically gay, but at the same time managed not to know it: after all, if you were guilty about having sex, this was almost as good as not having sex at all, and even in some ways better. But they knew one thing very well: if there were frocks to be worn in church, they were the men to wear them.

That is certainly what most of the bishops thought, in 1992, however much they might in theory have been committed to the idea that women ought to be priests. They thought this, but they did not feel it was a matter of justice and urgency, as the women did. One honourable exception there was George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, on whom the subtleties of his opponents’ positions were always entirely lost.

But Carey was new in office when the women priests legislation was passed, and the negotiations with the opponents were largely handled by Habgood, the last Etonian to be an archbishop before Justin Welby. His actions can be explained only by straightforward institutional conservatism. (He once told the Synod that one of his ideas had come to him in the bath at the Athenaeum: that was the sort of place where his sort of bishop did his sort of thinking.) And the compromise he came up with was more than anything else responsible for the twenty years of bitter and intermittently absurd wrangling that separated the ordination of the first women as priests from the decision that they might become bishops.

The serious wrangling over women priests had taken only half as long, and it was the step into priesthood that marked the decisive, principled break with tradition. Bishops were a mere tidying-up operation. That their acceptance took so long was a mark of the limits of liberalism, even in its moment of triumph. The first limitation was a belief in the power of reasoned discussion among reasonable men to come up with answers that were so self-evidently right that everyone must coalesce around them.

Habgood and Robert Runcie, Carey’s predecessor, incarnated this belief, although it took Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, to demonstrate its ultimate absurdity when he spent his years in office being bullied by thuggish evangelicals while he wrung his hands and thought of Dostoevsky.

Armoured and blinkered by their belief in reason, Habgood and Runcie supposed that in ten years everyone would understand the desirable inevitability of women priests; they didn’t, I think, expect the legislation to go through as quickly as it did, and as a result it was hugely complicated. In fact the decision to make women priests was so unexpected, and the unthinkable had been so little thought out, that the first reaction of the bishops was to figure out ways for as much of the church as possible to pretend that it hadn’t happened.

The resistance to women bishops was entirely untheological. That is to say, it came from men who did not want to be bossed about by women. This might be because they preferred women not to exist at all, or because they thought they were, and should remain, subordinate.

What the opponents wanted – and Habgood almost granted them – was a church of their own where they could pretend that none of this had happened. Some were explicit about it. Others spoke about the maintenance of their ‘integrity’, using a phrase which I think Habgood had invented, about the ‘two integrities’ of Anglicanism – one which thought that women really were priests, and one which didn’t. He would not, I think, have been so comfortable in a church where one integrity thought Etonians could be priests and another did not.

Bishops were central to this argument because the Anglo-Catholics believed their orders, their validity as priests, descended directly by a train of hands laid on at ordination all the way from Jesus through his disciples. As Sydney Smith once observed, this doctrine had to be believed because it was the only way to account for the descent of the Bishop of Winchester from Judas Iscariot. A woman bishop would break this chain. Even a male bishop who believed in women priests might break the chain, because he was a heretic to the Anglo-Catholic conscience, even if not to the church they belonged to and which they expected to pay their pensions.

On the other wing of the resistance, conservative evangelical clergy believe in authority. They don’t, of course, believe in the authority of the bishops they actually have, and many have made a point of excluding them from their churches, but they are certain that they would obey the proper authorities, if these existed, just as much as they expect their congregations to obey their own authority. So naturally a woman bishop was a threat to them.

So for twenty years, intelligent, talented and hard-working women joined the Church of England, worked their way up as far as they could – and discovered that their abilities counted for very little beside the hurt feelings of the men they might be promoted over. About a third of the priests in England now are women – but only half of them are paid for their work. The rest are part of the increasing army of English clergy who minister part-time, or in exchange for the use of a house. Those are not the terms, or the prospects, on which men enter the profession: only one in five of male English clergy are unpaid.

Yet the final women bishops vote was pushed through only by a combination of pressure from Parliament, the scorn of the outside world and the promise, once more, that to balance the women who are expected to be promoted, a man committed to the belief that they shouldn’t be bishops will also be given a job.

So when the vote came through, it was quite extraordinarily anti-climactic. Afterwards, I went down to the press conference held by two exhausted archbishops and asked who would be elected a bishop first after this historic compromise: a woman, or a man whose essential qualification was his opposition to women bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury got quite testy when he replied, without quite answering the question, that promoting women was an absolute priority.

I thought what a very long strange trip this has all been and at the end of it the vestments have all turned to frocks.


Andrew Brown


This story was from September 2014 issue. Subscribe Now