Church debate: Who'd be a bishop?

The General Synod debates women bishops again today. While they make up their minds, John Walsh weighs the palaces and puce robes against the political powerlessness

Olympics and Diamond Jubilee apart, 2012 may be the year that female bishops are at last introduced to the Church of England. The National Synod doesn't in fact vote until July to approve the legislation that will allow women to wear the episcopal purple; but the battle between traditionalists and reformers is already being waged from day to day. On Monday, the Right Reverend Peter Price, Bishop of Bath and Wells, suggested that a "No" vote for women bishops might plunge his entire organisation into a state of anaphylactic shock: "[If the vote doesn't succeed] it is extremely difficult to see how we will proceed without going through a very substantial period of shock."

Yes but one can't help asking: why would a woman, or anyone else, want to be a Church of England bishop? What's the attraction? Yes, you wear fancy puce robes, the headgear and accessories – mitre, crozier and ring – and (provided you're a diocesan bishop rather than a suffragan) you get to live in a palace. But have you seen the hard times bishops have endured lately?

Last month, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, the nation's top bishop after Canterbury, protested (mildly) that for the Government to allow same-sex "marriage" in British law would be to overrule the historical (and biblical) concept of marriage; in retaliation, furious demonstrators chanted songs and waved placards outside York Minster, and the Uganda-born Sentamu received, according to the police, "abusive and threatening emails of a racist nature".

It's not, of course, the first time that bishops and homophobia have been bracketed in the same sentence. Last summer the Church of England published a legal clarification that gay clergymen could in theory become bishops – but only if they promise that they're not having sex with anyone and have no plans to indulge in any in the future. Would-be bishops have to suffer the further indignity of being interviewed about any gay hanky-panky in their past, and will be encouraged to repent for it – or they won't get the job.

There was, of course, no legal ruling about whether lesbian clergywomen would have to make the same undertaking. But presumably it will come if women bishops are introduced in July.

You think that, because bishops sit in the House of Lords, they have political clout? Yes and, then again, no. Of the UK's 44 diocesan bishes, only 26 are allowed to sit on the red leather. The government is trying to cut the number to 12. They're known as The Lords Spiritual and have to leave the Lords when they retire from bishop duties, at 70.

While there, they have two functions: to lead people in prayer and to look to the well-being of the most vulnerable. They certainly do the former: one of them leads the prayers in the Lords Chamber every day. As to the latter, a group of five bishops this week helped defeat the Government's plans to cap benefits given to families. They did it from high-minded motives – to ensure the vulnerable young don't suffer from spending cuts – but protests broke out about their presence in the Lords, as an unelected "Christian party".

"People who sit in Parliament shouldn't be there as a result of holding another position," said a spokesman for Unlock Democracy. "That particularly applies to religious groupings." To dismay them further, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, piled in and said they were wrong, and couldn't "lay claim to the moral high ground".

Trying to decide the exact location of the moral high ground is fraught with problems. In October, Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, was embroiled in the Occupy protests around St Paul's. Canon Giles Fraser supported the demonstrators. The Bishop thought the best outcome was to have the demonstrators confront representatives of the banking sector, provided they disbanded first. He said he was thinking of asking police to help evict them – and Canon Fraser promptly resigned, leaving the cathedral's top brass in disarray and London's top clergyman looking like an autocratic bully.

And if you think bishops can take long holidays, think again. Poor Bishop Chartres took a two-month sabbatical in 2006 – his first in 33 years – on a cruise ship, lecturing on theology. For this he was crucified by high-minded newspapers, who said he should be attending to his Easter duties.

To sum up, then: the job of bishop is to preach God's word in a comprehensively secular, increasingly atheistic society, to enjoy decreasing political power in the Lords, to be bitched at for having political opinions, to be accused of homophobia, to be forced to relinquish the Wrong Kind of sexual activity, to never be allowed a holiday and to have one's dignity punctured by the media for the slightest transgression. Are you quite sure it's the right job for you?

Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice