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?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
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

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn