No women bishops for the C of E

Thursday, 22 November 2012

There was disappointment and anger for many Christians on Tuesday when the General Synod of the Church of England narrowly voted not to appoint women as bishops.

There were 322 votes in favour of measures that would finally allow women to be bishops, and only 124 against. All but two of the Church's 44 dioceses had given their support. But a complicated voting system, requiring the support of at least two thirds of each of the three different sections of the synod - bishops, clergy, and laity (regular, non-ordained members of the church), meant that thanks to just six votes, the "nos" triumphed. There were large majorities among the bishops and the clergy, but "just" 64% of the laity voted "yes".

When you look at the overall spread of votes and the overwhelming support of senior members of the church, the outcome seems ridiculous and unfair. That evening, many of my Anglican friends - both men and women - were extremely upset by it all. There were tears shed by many present at the meeting when the results of the vote were announced. Such a narrow loss after so many years of discussion, campaigning, and heartache is a huge blow. As a statement from pro-women bishops group WATCH said:

"The vote is a missed opportunity for a whole generation to see men and women sharing fully in the mission, ministry and leadership of the Church of England".

Media reaction to yesterday's news has been a mixed bag. As well as helpful comment from those affected by it, there has been much talk of Christianity proving itself to be "irrelevant", obsessed with tradition and sexism at a time when it should be more forward-thinking - which totally ignores the fact that the Church of England establishment does not represent all Christians. There has also been much talk of "evangelicals" holding firm on a "no" vote when it is completely inaccurate to suggest that being evangelical is synonymous with a view that men and women have different "roles" in the church and in the world.

You wouldn't know it from looking at many media sources, but there are actually many churches that affirm the role of women as being able to serve and contribute to the church in the same way as men. They could sometimes do with focusing more on how they arrived at this decision, because in a secular world where equal opportunities and fairness are key, it's theological arguments that are of primary importance to most Christians involved - that is to say, what does the Bible say about men, women, and equality, and how should this be applied to the church today?

That's why it was particularly disappointing to see a piece by Jemima Thackray in the Telegraph yesterday, claiming that "feminist rhetoric" irrevocably damaged the campaigning of those who are pro-women bishops.

"My main concern was that some arguments for women bishops just sounded too much like a contrived government initiative to get women into the boardroom," she wrote, mentioning the fact she thought the debate had become about "women having authority for its own sake" when the clergy are meant to be servants. She used words like "power hungry" and "status" as if that's what was at stake for the thousands of campaigners hoping for a "yes" on Tuesday.

This could not be further from the truth. Those in favour of women becoming bishops have always made a strong case for themselves, based on the equality of men and women in the eyes of God that's evident in the Bible and also on the radical example set by Jesus and the early church in giving authority and dignity to women that was, at the time, unheard of.

Over the centuries the church may have bought wholesale into the patriarchal way societies have generally been run, but that's not how it all began. Thousands of women clergy are very ably leading churches across the country because they feel that's what they've been called to do and because they love to serve their community, not because they're "power hungry". As Lucy Winkett said in her piece for the Guardian, linked above:

"For me, though, the issue is clear: from the very beginning of the church's existence, women should have been together with men in every area, every layer, every activity of the church's life. However, in the first century AD the church followed wider society, conforming to a societal structure that gave men the power."

Throughout this debate, it has been voices from outside the church that have ran with the rhetoric of "getting with the times" and equality legislation. This is not wrong - equality and inclusion were central aspects of Jesus's ministry - but it misses out on a vital perspective and in turn positions the debate on women bishops as one that should be decided on secular terms. Yes, many campaigners would consider themselves feminists and by opposing patriarchal power structures then they certainly have a lot in common with the feminist movement - but to claim they appeared motivated by status is out of line, and a sadly common view leveled at women who speak out against injustice and feel called to lead.

Broadcaster and popular blogger Vicky Beeching, who's also a research fellow in Christian ethics at Durham University, spoke to BitchBuzz on Wednesday. Of the tension between scripture and equality, she said:

"As a Christian Feminist who strongly campaigned for the women bishops vote to go through, I got my fair share of criticism. People often criticise my passion for gender equality, assuming that my feminism is rooted in a desire to be 'relevant' to today's culture. For me it's actually rooted in the Bible, because in that book I see a God who values women and men completely equally.

"Yes, the Bible has a reputation for being patriarchal, but I don't feel that is an accurate interpretation of it. For me, Christianity is best modelled in the life of Jesus and he treated women in ways that were considered revolutionary for his era. To me, he is the ultimate feminist."

Where the secular perspective matters here is for the general public who may be occasional churchgoers, or considering checking out church for the first time. Complex theological wrangling means little to them - they may just see a denomination that's anti-woman and more concerned about minute doctrinal detail than actually making a difference in people's lives, and this is never a good thing.

What's important right now is that the church shows love and support for its women clergy, attempts to move forward, and stands up to secular accusations that it is "dead", "irrelevant" and "bigoted", in the period before the measure can be discussed again in 2015. The "pro" camp must be united over proposals in order to stand firm against those opposing women bishops. As the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said on Tuesday:

"It is time to finish the job and vote for this measure. But, also, the Church of England needs to show how to develop the mission of the church in a way that demonstrates we can manage diversity of view without division."

Further reading: A useful Q&A on this week's events A good but very indepth post on the theological debates surrounding the issue

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz


Helicreature said...

I don't get it. We are ordaining more men than women but women are STILL prevented from becoming Bishops. It's barking!

Anonymous said...

Why would any woman want to be a bishop? Christianity ought to be modelled on the teachings of Jesus not on modern business practice. The CofE refers to 'line-managers' when referring to archdeacons and actively strive to fill the priesthood with men and women with proven backgrounds in middle management. The average church is overlywhelming dominated with Middle class women, working for free (with every last bit of labour wrung out of them until they 'burn out').

Knowledge of the Bible is weak (I once had to tell a newly ordained priest who Isaac was in the Old Testament - sorry that should be, of course, The First Testament). Understanding of theology is non-existent. Even Priests with theology degrees refuse to discuss it, claiming it alienates the majority of the congregation. You can't alienate them, where would the free labour come from if they left? In fact nothing can happen if there's a chance the congregation will be upset. Priests need to maintain their air of authority, otherwise people might remember that not that long ago these men and women were heading Geography departments or running offices. Since the priest must be considered the ultimate fountain of knowledge there can be no discussion that reveals gaps in their understanding or any idea accepted that may undermine the Church (only priests being able to conduct holy communion, the purpose of bishops, gay marriage). Women bishops is a permitted topic of conversation since most people present are middle class women who support the idea.

The priest's job is to manage the congregation. He or she has to keep bums on seats (or pews) and put on a little show every Sunday. There are weddings and funerals, a service most often not religious in nature but something offered to the public who want something a bit fancy for the special day. I've been a weddings ad funerals many times, only very rarely for an actual member of the congregation and every single time someone has thought it necessary to mention that they don't believe in God. Christenings are worse. Every single time someone from outside the Church wants a christening they are appalled at the idea of the service being conducted with the rest of the congregation present, "we want it to just be a day for the family". The priest must ensure that these services go ahead, that their are plenty of volunteers to make it viable and that there are no arguments or disputes that would jepodize the smooth running of the operation.

Finally there's money. The priest must continually badger the congregation for money. No-one ever gives enough and more is always needed. Church repairs, church improvements and vanity projects. Stipends for priests when dedicated members of the congregation can and will serve for free (oh yeah, unlike with Jesus, a person needs special permission to break bread and wine with fellow Christians).

The Job of a Priest is to manage and organise labour. Manage and organise services and events. Keep various factions and tensions from causing a rift and breaking up the workforce. Ensure that a much money is coming in as possible. No wonder the CofE is so keen on recruiting ex-middle managers. And that these Priest/managers are themselves managed by Archdeacon/line-managers and that Bishop/managers are next up the rung. Given the way the church is organised you have to expect conversations about women bishops to mirror conversations about women occupying the top jobs isn't other business.

Anonymous said...

So, my original question, why would a woman want to be a bishop? If the answer is about equality in the workplace them the conversation has nothing to do with the teaching or following of Jesus. He would,if we are to believe what we read in the Bible, vomit into his mouth if forced talk about faith a bishop - man or woman. Sadly I know many female Christians who agree with this but feel that they must argue for women bishops (rather than argue against the institution of bishops) because they believe the argument for equality is more pressing than matters of faith. Jesus on the other hand stayed away from such arguments, judging them to be irrelevant.


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