Women bishops: Is 'positive discrimination' a good thing?

Justin Welby at the General Synod at The University of York, where the motion to pass women bishops was passed.Lynne Cameron/PA Wire

Discrimination is an ugly word - used with increasing abandon to criticise those who fail to toe the line of tolerance.

The news that the Church of England will encourage bishop selection committees to use 'positive discrimination' to appoint women is therefore interesting, though not necessarily a surprise.

Legislation supporting female bishops passed through the General Synod last week, but as the Church and State are entwined in British law, the Ecclesiastical Committee in Parliament must also approve the legislation before it can be legally implemented.

It went through its first stage of Parliamentary consideration on Monday, with a unanimous vote from members of both houses; a move less convoluted than its Synod counterpart:

The Telegraph reports that William Fittall, Secretary General to the General Synod and the Church's most senior official, told MPs and Peers that where male and female candidates are equally qualified for a position as bishop, it will be advised that the woman should be appointed over the man.

This is in order to even out the gender imbalance in clerical positions as quickly as possible.

"The positive action remit of the Equality Act is something people will have in mind in the Church now as women are eligible to become bishops for the first time," Fittall announced.

"They allow you to put more effort into training and in particular they enable you, in the case of a tiebreak, where you have got insufficient diversity, to lean in favour of the under-represented group."

Fittall continued by insisting that the "spirit" of this idea is something the Church wants to encapsulate in its decision-making processes, and will "encourage" appointment committees to take it on board.

"We will do that as a matter of policy because we think it is right," he said, noting that it is already applied with regards to the appointment of parish priests.

However, supporters of women bishops have indicated that the term 'positive discrimination' is unhelpful within this context.

"I do not think this is the right term to use," says Sally Barnes, Chair of Women and the Church (WATCH) which has been a key organisation in the pro-women bishops campaign.

"It is one that is so easily used against the appointment of women in any sphere. You could justify saying that for decades the only positive discrimination that has been taking place is that of men," she adds.

"In the case of women bishops there are many, many able women priests who - had they been men - would have been appointed bishops years ago. The Church has missed out on their gifts and leadership abilities of collaboration and service in that role and is now likely to right that omission to the greater benefit of the Church and the Christian message."

Theologian and writer Vicky Beeching agrees that it's an unhelpful turn of phrase, and has suggested that it could even negatively affect those women who will take up the bishop mantle.

"Rectifying the gender imbalance in the House of Bishops is urgent and needs to happen as soon as possible, but any woman would, (I imagine), want to know she got the role based on being the best possible candidate, not on being thrown a favour because of being female," Beeching argues.

"That might actually result in being be a negative for senior women in the Church rather than a positive, as they could end up feel patronised and wondering whether they got the job fairly or not."

However, Christina Rees, writer, broadcaster and member of the General Synod, argues that Fittall has been misunderstood, and is not advocating for any form of discrimination at all.

"I do not think the Secretary General's comments imply that there will be positive discrimination as it is commonly understood, more an awareness of needing to make positive changes in order to bring women into the episcopate with as little delay as possible now that General Synod has voted in favour," she told Christian Today.

"Candidates will still be appointed on merit, although the implication is that when a male and a female candidate are considered to be equally suitable, there will be an encouragement to lean in the direction of appointing the women.

"There are a number of highly experienced women priests who were ordained up to 20 years ago, whose contribution has been lost so far in the House of Bishops. Many of these women would be bishops now if they were male. If the Church of England is serious about having both women and men exercising episcopal leadership, then it has a lot of catching up to do," Rees added.

"We believe there should be men and women together in the House of Bishops, and in order for that to happen, we need to appoint some women! I wouldn't call that positive discrimination at all, but let's now make our bishops reflect what we've just voted to do, and the theology that underlies it."

The first possible female appointment will be the bishop of Gloucester, who is to be chosen in January 2015, and the bishops of Oxford and Newcastle have also announced their retirement before the end of the year, which could make way for three new female bishops in the near future.

However, due to the lengthy legislation process, the earliest a woman could be instated into the synod's house of bishops is summer of next year.