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?

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
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
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

The benefits of being in Recruitment at SThree...

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

Technical Systems Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Technical Systems Analyst

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A pioneering Re...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform