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

Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Biblical womanhood. It's a phrase and a concept that doesn't sit well with many Christians, thanks to the way it's been held over women and used to dictate their life choices in recent decades. For a long time, those two words together made me bristle with irritation at the way they're used, at the things they're supposed to suggest. In the UK, Biblical womanhood isn't such a clearly defined set of choices, personality traits and opinions as it is in the US, where depending on what sort of church you go to it might mean long skirt-wearing, head-covering, contraception-eschewing, living under the 'authority' of a man at all times, or Martha Stewart-cooking, seasonal craft-making, "keeping sweet" and claiming that when it comes to clothes, "modest is hottest". Cultural and religious differences mean it'll probably never be like this here, unless we see some sort of Handmaid's Tale-inspired coup d'etat. But that doesn't mean we don't see the popular books about it stocked in our churches and some of the more popular ideas about it bandied about during women's events and Bible studies.

The long-awaited book about this nebulous concept from the often-controversial blogger Rachel Held Evans has been creating a bit of a storm since its publication. Evans knew this would happen because it started the moment she published a blog post announcing her Biblical Womanhood project. Over the past couple of years, she's gone from being a well-known blogger and writer to being notorious, with scores of fans, but also with critics lining up to label her evil, a heretic, bitter and ungracious, hysterical, out of line and someone who's making a mockery of scripture. Plenty have gone as far as to question whether she can actually be regarded as a Christian at all. The main reason for this, of course, is the fact that she writes with passion about women's issues from an egalitarian perspective, and dares to question conservative evangelical culture. And in a country where this has the ability to incite such angry debate, where the role of women within Christianity is such an issue that it's causing incredible damage in people's lives, that it's causing women to leave the church altogether - Evans's voice was never going to be welcomed by all.

The basic premise of the book is a playful sort of piece of performance art - explored through a series of experiments and conversations. Evans chooses 12 qualities of women mentioned in the Bible (gentleness, domesticity, obedience, valour, beauty, modesty, purity, fertility, submission, justice, silence, and grace) and devotes one month to exploring each of them, setting herself goals and activities, and meeting women who espouse some of these qualities. Yes, she spends time sleeping in a tent because she's menstruating. Yes, she stops cutting her hair and wearing trousers. It's meant to be slightly hyperbolic because plenty of these things really are mentioned in the Bible, and because she wants us to find it funny. And it is - reading of her exploits with a computerised baby, her efforts to cook elaborate recipes, and she and husband Dan's attempts to get used to a marriage with defined "roles" and male headship is good fun.

But there's plenty to be serious about too. In her own words, Evans's goal was to challenge the idea that "Biblical womanhood" is a set of roles and rules. She set out to explore the stories of women in the Bible, look at the way different groups of Christians interpret "Biblical womanhood" today, and come to some of her own conclusions about what it meant for her personally, and for Christian women in general. She developed a close and wonderful friendship with an Orthodox Jewish woman. She talked to Amish women, spent time at a monastery, got the lowdown from a woman who grew up in the Christian Patriarchy movement, and visited a whole bunch of amazing women in Bolivia. It was from these conversations, with people who didn't share her religious traditions and culture, that Evans gained a lot of wisdom and insight, confronting plenty of negative stereotypes she'd previously held.

She was also able to confront several of her insecurities - mainly discomfort with the "Proverbs 31 wife" and the way she had felt - even from childhood, that she never would measure up to what this was supposed to represent, but also her anxieties about motherhood. The exploration into Proverbs 31 is one of the most profound in the book, as when Evans decides to "take back Proverbs 31", and delves into the concept of the woman of valour - eshet chayil - she realises that the woman is not praised for what she does, rather for how she does it. As a result she resolves to celebrate the lives and work of women who shine, and stop trying to be anyone but herself.

In exploring the qualities of the Biblical woman, Evans also has warnings for Christians and Christian culture -  of teaching a view of beauty that amounts to "thou shalt not let thyself go", and for pastors tempted to teach prescriptively about "Biblical" sex in a way that goes into great detail. She comes to the conclusion that "the Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all a myth". This is well illustrated by the fact that each chapter ends with a section focusing on a different woman whose story is told in the Bible. No uniformity is to be found in the tales of Esther and Deborah, Leah and Martha, Junia and the woman at the well.

To a UK reader, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is also an interesting glimpse into a culture far more bound by conservative Christian values - Evans writes of worship music playing in the background at the craft store, and having to drive for forty five minutes to buy wine to cook with, as "hard liquor" can't be purchased in her county. When she meets a female pastor, she learns of how the woman was called "a cancer in the church" and "a threat to Christianity" for preaching, with people leaving her church in protest and other local churches coming together to denounce her. It shows us that we are, perhaps, quite fortunate that there is less of one-size-fits-all approach here, but also that maybe there are perspectives we are missing in our discourse on the subject, and that we often don't consider what the situation is for women in other branches of the church.

So what of the criticism the book has received so far? A good number of Evans's more vocal opponents haven't actually read it, convinced as they are that it's full of heresy and mockery (she has politely suggested that they may wish to do so before commenting further). Many of them don't like the tone of her writing - but as Morgan Guyton said in a piece for HuffPost Religion (read it; it's good):

"The trouble is you can't be taken seriously in the world our generation inhabits if you get your undies in a bunch over sass and sarcasm."

Snark should not be the problem here. There's nothing wrong with putting a humorous spin on things. Evans predicted in the book itself that she would receive criticism from two camps - from conservatives calling her "dangerous" and an "extreme feminist", and from atheists, calling her "brainwashed" and wondering why she belongs to a patriarchal religion in the first place. From what I've seen this is fairly accurate. I've been disappointed by the unwillingness of people holding such views to actually engage with the purpose of the project - for the former, reviews have seemed to mainly consist of theological rebuttals of egalitarianism as if that's what's at stake here, and accusations that Evans has somehow "put God's word on trial". As Amy Lepine Peterson wrote in her review of the book:

"If Evans is putting anything on trial, it’s the notion that any human, herself included, can have the final word on what defines 'womanhood'."

As a Christian with great respect for the Bible, Evans had no intention of trashing the phrase "Biblical womanhood" or denigrating God. She talks about the way we all interpret scripture to find what we are looking for and challenges us in this respect. She finds a new reverence for contemplative practices and ritual. She's able to take a lot from the experiment. And she wants us to take something from our reading of it, too. Apparently this has already been happening - she's had correspondence from people who have told her it's made them want to start delving into their Bibles again, that it has finally brought them to a place of peace with the Proverbs 31 woman.

Eshet chayil, Rachel!


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