By next Easter, we are likely to see the appointment of female bishops – finally. Women have been ordained as priests for over twenty years, so preventing women from being appointed bishops was beginning to appear less about upholding tradition, and more about an issue of embedded sexism within the Church. The Church is often criticised for being institutionally sexist, and whilst the appointment of female bishops does not address this problem completely, it appears to be a step – albeit a rather belated one, in the right direction.
Critics of the movement to appoint female bishops argue that instead of it being a step forward, it is a sign that the Church is giving in to pressure from the modern world, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Regardless of its long history and origins, the Church is an institution that plays a role in the modern world, and so it should be feeling under pressure to act as one. Whereas the intangible nature of ideas and beliefs might make them bulletproof, the man-made institutions that represent them are not – and should not be – immune to criticism. Imagine the reaction of outrage if a major corporation had a public policy that blatantly refused promotions to its female workforce. Surely the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ attitude wouldn’t stand as an argument there?
The fact that the Church is a religious institution is arguably of little consequence; it should still be subject to the same values and, perhaps more importantly, laws, as the rest of society. It should thus be put under the same pressure as non-religious establishments to enforce gender equality. The appointment of female bishops is a non-issue – the real question is why it is still considered a debatable subject. Other Anglican churches (including the Anglican churches of India, Canada, and Swaziland) already have female bishops, so it’s not even as if this is a revolutionary step in an international context; it should have happened a while ago.
It’s 2014 and we live in an increasingly secularised society. If the Church wants to keep wielding significant influence, especially with younger generations, it needs to remain relevant to today’s values. The observation of equality legislation is a step in the right direction, as shocking as it may seem to some. The Church cannot stand immune to change just because it claims to represent a higher power. The appointment of female bishops is largely an effect of pressure from the modern world, and it’s great that this pressure exists. We’ve made various social changes for the better, especially regarding equality rights. Although organised religion has long been a conservative force, even the Catholic Church has seen a revamp of its image, with Pope Francis being viewed as a (relatively) liberal representative. The Church of England will do well to follow a more progressive and inclusive policy with its clergy. The appointment of female bishops may have been made possible by the pressure put on the Church, but what matters is that the effect is positive.