Temperatures are set to rise in York this weekend, as they are in the rest of the country, but members of the Church of England’s General Synod are unlikely to be getting their kit off. Instead, they will be meeting in their customary buttoned-up manner in the university’s unprepossessing theatre – all clerical collars and geography teachers’ checked sleeveless shirts revealing pale forearms – to argue yet again what to do about these irritating women priests who feel that they may be ready to be bishops. Bewildered, the outside world will stare down at them from the gallery like Yorkshire farmers at a cattle market.
Or perhaps it’s more like a debate in the parliament of Lilliput, the kind of eternal wrangle of a cut-off people, witnessed by the bemused Gulliver, where nothing matters any more other than the internalised priorities of its participants. As writers less original than Jonathan Swift observe, you couldn’t make it up. At last year’s brace of Synods, first the pro-women crowd in July refused to let legislation progress because it made too much provision for those who “in conscience” couldn’t accept their episcopal authority. Then in November, an anti-women ginger group, comprising an uneasy alliance of common conservative evangelicals and posh Anglo-Catholics, holed the proposal below the waterline by six votes in the House of Laity.
The richest of ironies is that, if the motion for women bishops is carried this time, both sides are losers – the female-bishop lobby will look, in its apparent lack of sympathy for those who take a different view, as if only churchwomen bleed and the traditionalists will get less by way of provision than if they’d gone with the tide last November.
Of course, the proposal may get chucked out again exactly for that last reason. And to that extent this is the first real and huge test for the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. With his slightly scary gaunt features and rimless spectacles, he carries a weight of expectation he will need all his oil-industry corporate experience, his eclecticism of church traditions and his skills in conflict-resolution in Africa to get a sensible result. In short, will he manage to knock pointy and round heads together sufficiently hard?
Dear God, those of us in the Church of England not sweatily testing cheap deodorants on the floor of Synod in York this weekend hope and pray that he can. Because our Church is bigger and better than this snitty, sub-Apprentice point-scoring. And we long for our Church to be judged again for what it does for and what it says to its non-members, rather than for what it argues among its own.
On Sunday night, there will be a debate on welfare reform, about how the least among us may be paying for the economic mistakes of our financial elite. It will be entirely eclipsed by the following morning’s debate on the chromosomal structure of bishoprics. That says it all, really.