Recently the General Synod of the Church of England voted to approve the ordination of women bishops. However, the requisite two thirds majority was only reached in two (Bishops and Clergy) out of the three Houses. The House of Laity was six votes short of the necessary two thirds majority, which ultimately meant that the decision was not passed. A majority did want change, therefore, but just not a large enough majority.
The Equality Act 2010, the cornerstone of UK equality legislation, is described on the Home Office website as: “the law which bans unfair treatment and helps achieve equal opportunities in the workplace and in wider society.” However, the Act also permits certain narrow exemptions to this general rule, including in relation to employment for the purposes of an organised religion.
This specific exemption is intended to cover a very narrow range of employment: ministers of religion and a small number of lay posts, including those that exist to promote and represent religion. Effectively the exemption permits religious organisations, such as the Church of England, to discriminate on the ground of sex in choosing its ministers of religion. The Church is often accused of being out of touch with modern society and the recent decision in relation to women bishops will do nothing to counter this image. Even our own Prime Minister, who has often been accused of failing to relate to the general populace, indicated that the Church needs to “get with the programme”. There have been calls for the Government to intervene and repeal some or all of the current religious exemptions in the equality laws, and if this were to happen, this would pave the way for women to be able to sue the Church of England for sex discrimination. However, the Government has indicated that it will not use the equality legislation to force the Church to accept women bishops.
The added complication is the Church of England’s close relationship with the British State. There are 26 bishops who currently sit in the House of Lords and have a vote on parliamentary law; an option which is currently not available to women as they cannot be bishops. Some have argued that this is “profoundly undemocratic” and as a result of Tuesday’s decision, a petition to the Government has been started to remove the right of the Church of England to have automatic seats in the House of Lords.
Arguably the recent decision does not comply with the spirit of European equality law which aims to eliminate inequalities and promote equality between men and women. That said, under current UK law, religious organisations are within their rights to discriminate on the ground of sex in relation to certain religious roles. The call for women to be admitted to the Episcopate is unlikely to go away any time soon but it remains to be seen, what, if anything will be done about it.