A golden opportunity for the Church of England

For most students, the controversies plaguing the Church of England seem absurd. In a country that has had both female monarchs and a female prime minister, it is bizarre that, until this year, one of our foremost institutions legally barred women from reaching its top ranks. Looked at in that light, it seems obvious that the Church should appoint a female bishop straight away, so that the process of reversing years of inequality and oppression can begin as quickly as possible. This is certainly the position I hold, and one I expect most readers do too.

Yet, the Church of England is curiously adverse to sudden change and there is a feeling in certain parts of it that appointing a woman to one of the top episcopal posts, namely the bishopric of Oxford, would be too far, too fast.

A better solution, they might argue, would be to appoint a woman to a more junior episcopal post and take things from there. This uneasiness at the speed with which things are happening is shown by an online poll on The Oxford Times website. At the time of writing, as many as 37% of respondents think that the next Bishop of Oxford should not be a woman.

However, this softly-softly approach is exactly the reason why the Church of England is seen as increasingly irrelevant in the modern world. At best, their fear of offending anyone and subsequent dithering has led to them being seen as an impotent force, standing for nothing, contributing nothing to contemporary debate.

At worst, it has made them look like reactionaries of the most bigoted sort, supporting all kinds of discrimination, whether against women or members of the LGBTQ community.

It is time for the Church of England to wake up, to realise that they need to take the lead and make bold statements. Appointing a woman to one of England’s top bishoprics would be one such statement; it would show the public that the church stood for progress and equality, and would undo some of the damage caused by the rejection of woman bishops the first time round.

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However, in all this excitement, we are at risk of forgetting the other battles that need to be won in the Church of England and, in particular, the failure of the Church of England to appoint an openly gay bishop.

This issue has been sidelined by the issue of women bishops, but is just as important, and has just as controversial a history. Jeffrey John, after all, was on track to be the first gay bishop in 2003, when he was appointed to the Bishopric of Reading, but withdrew his acceptance after controversy.

It doesn’t matter too much whether the Church appoints a gay bishop, or a female bishop, or indeed a gay female bishop. But whomever they appoint, the message they send should be clear: We have changed, the old prejudices are gone and we have arrived in the Twenty First Century.

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