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Commentary

Let's talk about sects

Agnostics anonymous

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The US presidential election is a tough act to follow. But in the aftermath of Barack Obama's re-election,  Britain's way of picking its public representatives seems particularly uninspiring. The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury was a murky, protracted affair conducted behind closed doors. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections smashed the floor for record low turnouts. Then there was the general synod vote on women bishops.

People have managed to get excited about this, if only because it was the Wrong Result. Questions in the Commons threw down the accusation that the Church now 'deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society that it represents'. David Cameron curtly ordered the Church to 'get with the programme'.

Meanwhile, the government has amended the Act of Succession in honour of the currently-gestating future addition to the Royal Family. In 2011, Cameron said 'the idea that a younger son should become a monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man' is 'at odds with the modern countries that we have become'.

How much is the Church at odds with our own modern society? There is plenty of publicly-available data on this. The draft voting on the legislation is available online,  results broken down by bishops, clergy, laity and by diocese. You can cross-reference this with the ComRes poll of the nation in general and find that 10% of 55-64 year olds attended church at least once a month, 62% of West Midlanders thought the Church was an important part of our national identity and 100% of Sikhs believed the Church's relevance was in long-term decline.

But however you squint at these numbers, one fact looms out. The horse had bolted long before the general synod failed again to shut the gate. The Church Estates Commissioner Tony Baldry  commented that 'as a consequence of the decision by general synod… the Church of England no longer looks like a national church, it simply looks like a sect like any other sect'.

Thou hast said it. And if you can accept that the head of one sect ought to be part of the ruling establishment because, well, they have been for a long time, then why not accept that they've all been men for a long time too? ­­­­­Adjusting the gender balance of the bishops doesn't make their presence in public life any less of a bizarre anachronism.

Contra David Cameron, it also seems to me that if you accept a head of state determined by an accident of birth, then you needn't quibble about the importance given to a further accident of birth, gender. But that seems to be 'the programme': embarrassingly antiquated institutions + more women = modern, representative institutions. Rejoice!