Thursday, 9 February 2012

On Women Bishops

My introduction to education was via a tiny infants school set among the soft wooded hills and babbling brooks of mid-Surrey. In this idyll I was taken daily to school by my mum along with another boy and his mum who lived in the same road.  The boy's name was Michael and his dad was a policeman.  He was my best friend, and we would stand in his back garden waving to the drivers of the (steam) trains which ran behind his house.  They would usually wave back, and we both wanted to be train drivers when we grew up.

Except, weirdly, we both grew up to be civil servants.  Even more weirdly, we ended up in the same government department, and thirty years after our train-waving days, in the same division of the same department.  Michael was cleverer than me, and more senior. He was also rather handsome, popular, and of a lively disposition.  A bit of an all-round golden boy, destined for success.

One of the things the British civil service does well is what it calls policy development.  The government of the day sets out its aims in a particular policy area, and the departmental officials set about translating those aims into proposed legislation and/or whatever else is needed to give them practical effect.  They do this by analysis, discussion and consultation; by identifying "rocks in the water" and developing ways of avoiding them; and by refining, clarifying, and finessing the proposals so that they meet the political intention while minimising disruption and such negative consequences as can be practically minimised.  Much of this process takes place at meetings in which ideas are thrashed out, suggested ways forward are scrutinised, and the advice of professional staff (eg lawyers, engineers, economists, doctors) is taken.  The decision eventually reached is thus the result of thorough examination and reflection; and those involved in implementing it - even if they do not agree with it - have been involved in its development and understand why they are doing it.  They have not necessarily abandoned their own views; but they accept the decision as having been properly made and, in the interests of their department's success and reputation, devote their energies to making it work.

Michael was involved in many of these meetings; and was good at promoting his view and adpating his thinking when confronted with differing ideas and objections.  On one occasion, however, he was so convinced he was right about how to implement some policy, that he refused to compromise.  As the necessary series of meetings progressed, and although most of them thought he was wrong, his colleagues did their best to accommodate him, and to find ways of meeting his objections to opposing ideas.  But he would not budge.  Eventually, as the group's thinking coalesced and broad agreement reached, he found himself in a minority of one.  Still he would not give in.  Everyone continued to be very polite about it, and to acknowledge the integrity of his position.  But his obstinacy reached a point at which it was preventing progress, and the senior official in the group was obliged, reluctantly, to overrule him.  "Michael", he said, " you are a very bright young man, and I predict you will go far.  But you must learn to recognise the point at which you have lost an argument."


  1. Oh, shabaash, huzoor! I am moved to declaim in Urdu to salute this brilliant piece, which of course has nothing about women bishops in it at all. Except the title....

  2. Thank you. This is very helpful. It is difficult for someone like me to get any real sense of what people think or feel about the current state of the question in the Church of England. One tends to hear only the more "noisy' views.

  3. Yes, but I am still with Phyllis Diller:

    Anytime three New Yorkers get into cab without an argument, a bank has just been robbed...

  4. The truth of the matter is, I feel, that most Anglicans are either content with the proposal (for women bishops) or indifferent to it. That does not mean that it does not matter - women's ordained ministry is a fundamental change to historic Church order, and can never realistically be reversed. Plainly there needs to be much debate and prayer. But for most, I suspect, this is yesterday's issue: the argument was effectively won or lost (depending on your view) 20 years ago.