Beware the women bishops vote

The Church of England found itself the object of widespread anger and derision last week after its governing body, the Synod, narrowly failed to approve the creation of women bishops.

To British Jews, it must seem like another family’s problem. But the fallout may yet have consequences for other faiths.

Already parliamentarians are talking about taking matters into their own hands and the veteran Labour MP Frank Field has tabled a bill which would remove the Church’s current exemption from anti-discrimination laws.

Supporters of the move argue that the C of E is a special case since it is the country’s established church, whose privileges include a number of bishops’ seats for in the Lords.

Political intervention is probably more of a sharp stick to prod the Church down the road of equality than a threat likely to be carried out.

In the view of the country’s only female rabbinic peer, Baroness Neuberger, the Church ought to be given the chance “to sort themselves out — last-chance saloon — as it is not desirable for Parliament to involve itself unless absolutely essential, even though it’s the established church. But if they can’t sort it out quickly, then the threat should be used.”

Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Jeremy Newmark believes that it would be possible to draw up a bill restricted to the Church.

“A surgically targeted legislative clause without any knock-on effect would be relatively easy to draft,” he said.

Yet even such a narrowly targeted bill would represent a significant instance of the state intervening in the affairs of a religious body.

This could only put more wind in the sails of those who wish to curtail the autonomy of religious institutions which are felt to be in conflict with prevailing liberal values.

The clamour to extend equality legislation to other areas of religious life would surely grow louder.

And even if there was no law to compel the Catholic Church to have women priests or the United Synagogue women rabbis, such institutions could in time find themselves at a disadvantage if they did not pass the “equality test” — for example, by no longer being eligible for public grants, or even charitable status.

If the landmark Supreme Court ruling against JFS, which forced Jewish schools to rewrite their entry rules, proved anything, it is that anti-discrimination laws can bite where least expected.

Last updated: 12:45am, November 30 2012