Equalities minister Maria Miller says CofE must reform and ‘act quickly’ to reflect majority
Maria Miller, the culture secretary and minister for equalities, has urged the Church of England to review its internal democracy, describing it as not reflective of the overwhelming views of its members following its botched attempt to allow women to become bishops.
In her first official comments on the issue, which has plunged the established church into turmoil, Miller told the Guardian it was “extraordinary” and “very disappointing” that a vote on long-awaited legislation had failed despite the overwhelming approval of grassroots members.
In a direct criticism of the way in which the General Synod came to its decision to block women bishops she says: “If you’re going to tackle the problem, I think the church needs to be answering some of the questions as to why their system works the way it does, and are they really happy that it’s reflective of the views of their membership. But, as I say, it’s important that the church tackles this.”
She adds: “I think it’s extraordinary that the church seems to have ended up in a situation where a vote that was taken doesn’t seem to be reflective of the overwhelming view of the members of the church.”
Miller, echoing previous comments by David Cameron, said it was up to the church to tackle its internal problems, urging it to examine the “procedures and processes” which, she said, led to a result which did not “reflect the majority will”.
Although female bishops were approved by the majority of dioceses, bishops and clergy, they were rejected by the laity on Tuesday when put to a vote in the synod, the church’s governing body.
There has been criticism that the laity in the synod does not reflect the true state of church feeling. The deanery synods of a diocese choose lay representatives to the General Synod – the church governing body – by formal election using the single transferable vote. Critics say these elections are marked by apathy.
Miller said: “Obviously, it’s for the Church of England to run its own procedures and processes, but I hope that they have heard, loud and clear, the strength of feeling on this, and that it acts quickly.”
A spokesman for Welby, the bishop of Durham, who is to take over from Rowan Williams as the archbishop of Canterbury next year, said on Friday that the bishop would be replying “in support” of a meeting with MPs and Lords to discuss ways of moving forward with the issue. The suggestion, made by Sir Tony Baldry, the Tory MP who speaks on behalf of the church in the House of Commons, came after David Cameron urged the church to “get with the programme”, while insisting parliament had to “respect individual institutions … while giving them a sharp prod”.
For some MPs, however, that is not enough. They have called on parliament to force the church to act by removing its exemption from equalities legislation or by calling into question the future of the 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords.
The government wants the issue of women bishops to be revisited as quickly as possible, aware of how damaging a drawn-out battle could prove for the established church. This, however, could prove difficult. Church rules state that the legislation cannot be brought back in the same form before 2015, although an unlikely intervention by the so-called Group of Six – representatives of each of the three houses in the synod including the archbishops of Canterbury and York – could change that. Senior figures in the church will have an opportunity to discuss the issue at a meeting of the archbishops’ council in Sheffield next week.
Many campaigners for female bishops say privately they are concerned that a rushed return of the legislation in a modified form could result in them having to vote on a measure that is more concessionary to their opponents and even more discriminatory. They would prefer to wait and work towards the introduction of an uncompromising single-clause measure.
“What a small minority has done is blow up the bridge to any compromise solution. The consecration of women into the episcopate has been moved from certainty to inevitability. There is now only one route which must be travelled to that outcome. That is the route which removes all discriminatory provisions from the life and ministry of the church,” John Gladwin, vice-president of the women’s ordination campaign group Watch and former bishop of Chelmsford, wrote on Friday. “The work of the leadership of our church will be marginalised unless that reality is faced. The fog has lifted. Now with clarity and commitment we must all work to this end.”
Amid calls from some MPs for parliament to intervene in the crisis, the bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, added his voice to those openly questioning whether the church should retain its exemption from equalities legislation.
In a statement, the bishop, a leading liberal with links to the US Episcopal church, said the vote had “brought ridicule” on the church and meant that it needed to face up to issues such as whether its protection from equality law was “defensible”.
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