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?

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Scrum Master (Agile, Java, team recruitment)

£45000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Scrum M...

Junior Asset Manager

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Junior As...

Investment Analyst

£33000 - £40000 Per Annum Discretionary profit share: The Green Recruitment Co...

Project Coordinator

£20000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Project C...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?