So, today is the day the General Synod of the Church of England got to vote on whether women should get to be bishops. I always thought it mattered – but I never thought I would find myself taking it this personally.
When I initially started thinking about ‘women in leadership in the church’, beyond the general assumptions that come from being a nice, white, middle class girl, with academic aptitude who grew up with the assumptions that women could and should do things and run things, including in churches, I was deliberately not a member of the Church of England. And now I – accidentally – am. And in my church I lead a group in kids church, and I co-lead a home group. We have female ordinands, curates and a pastors. But today the General Synod told us that none of them can be bishops.
Perhaps I shouldnt blame the Synod out of hand. 72% of the Synod voted to permit women bishops. 94% of the bishops, 76% of the clergy and 64% of the laity voted for it. But for an elusive 2% I’d be happily guessing the odds of which of the amazing women I know in ministry would be the first bishop. But still, there is a minority of my church that says that they – that I – that WE – should not be in a position of leadership because we are women.
And I just think they’re wrong. I am fundamentally baffled by the theology, I think the church will lose out on some great pastoring, teaching and leadership, and, right now, as much as both of those things matter, it just freakin’ hurts There may be many many reasons why I should not be in a position of leadership. None of them are to do with my lacking some mystery leadership gene that only lives on the Y chromosome.
I don’t really want to go through the theology in depth. I am not a trained theologian and this is contentious (though why…), and also I know I’m too angry to make a coherent argument rather than spewing out ‘bits’. But at the same time, I can’t find an exposition of my position online, although I have one in booklet form (Soul Survivor’s Position on Women in Leadership, written by Graham Cray – Bishop, ahem) and have heard plenty of preaching on the subject that explains it better than I could. And yes, they have probably shaped my views too – but I’ve hardly been under-exposed to the opposition (and yes, I have listened).
I don’t understand how you can see biblical leaders like Deborah, women like Mary and Martha, and Lydia, Priscilla and Phoebe and think that, biblically, women shouldn’t be in a position of leadership. Or that they shouldn’t be in leadership over men. Deborah clearly was, and Israel seems to have been relatively untraumatised by it. I can understand why Paul might not chose to place a woman in a position of authority over a man in the first century Mediterranean world, because, quite frankly, he was already kicking up enough dust challenging established religions and ways of living in relation to God, without challenging the cultural norms of gender relationships. I read a comment today that said, ‘In scripture, the authoritative teaching voice is male.’ And in scriptural times, Sir, the acceptable teaching voice was male. The church was built in relationship to the culture of its age: to challenge it, but also to survive it. It’s leaders picked its battles, and in meantime continued to grow and develop women in leadership roles in a way that the majority – if not all – the other religions of the time failed to do (where there were female priests they were largely in cults and rituals for women only).
I don’t understand how you can see Genesis 3:16, God’s pronouncement to Eve that her husband will rule over her, as anything other than the result of the fall, of broken relationships, of Adam blaming Eve for what happens, of a situation that is not meant to be. Until then it is a relationship of equals. They work together and they are intended to protect and steward the earth together. And then it all goes wrong – but here’s the thing: we’re supposed to be trying to get back there.
If we as a church believe that Jesus came to restore relationships between humanity and God, then surely that must go hand-in-hand with restoring the other relationships He established in creating the world – including those within humanity – and yes, between male and female. Christians are supposed to be working towards realising the Kingdom of Heaven, and a bunch of us are getting hung up on hanging on to pattern of working relationships that is flawed anyway because we (both genders) screwed up in chapter three! Surely one way in which we should be working towards rebuilding God’s world is to repair gender relationships? Modelling ways of living in community together, as equals?
If the early church picked its battles, built itself in relationship with and challenge to its society then so should we. And yet on today’s evidence we’re still fighting a battle that the numeric majority* thinks ought to be settled, and that the society we live in is challenging us on. We ought to be modelling better relationships between men and women. We ought to be worrying about how to be and select better leaders, and how our leaders ought to help the church to challenge society, far more than we should worrying about ‘who has authority to do what to who’ (and I like ritual!). Yes doctrine matters – but does doctrine really tell us that one gender is superior to the other, or better suited to a kind of role? It codifies the essentials of our beliefs – but is the question of which gender (if either) ought to lead really a central tenet of the Christian faith? I don’t think it is.
So what to do with today’s result? I find myself with two responses.
The first response is angry. I have a bunch of questions for those who opposed the motion. What essentials do you think I lack, that I shouldn’t have the right to be a bishop if I were of a character qualified to be a vicar? If you’re a woman and you opposed the motion, what do you think you lack? Do I have enough leadership qualities that I should be allowed to be a parish vicar, but no more? If so, is it really easier to pastor, teach a general congregation than a bunch of clergy (or of five year olds, which I do now)? I don’t think so. How come the Queen gets to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but there shouldn’t be a female archbishop? Does a crown come with a magick bonus Y chromosome? Why haven’t you split from the Church over that like Hanover did from Britain when Victoria acceded to the throne? How come you get to demand provison for those who don’t want women bishops, effectively holding the church to ransom over it and those who do want women bishops don’t get to have provision for that? Don’t try and tell me you’d be ok with making some female flying bishops to look after that if you thought you could avoid it, I’m not buying. If you’re going to disagree with your current and future Archbishops of Canterbury, the majority of your bishops and your clergy why even bother having leadership? Actually, why even belong to a church when you disagree with its leadership’s majority views on something you believe to be so fundamental?
That’s the anger stage of my grieving process. (Denial was when I blinked wildly at the screen of my phone earlier and saw the breaking news headline).
The other response is less angry. I think it might be part of my bargaining stage, the bit that says ‘it’s all going to be ok in the end, right?’ I said this morning to someone I disagree with on this issue that one of the things that I find very appealing about the Church of England is that it disagrees with itself and survives. And that’s still true. It was born in disagreement and compromise and there has never ever been agreement on all of the doctrine of the Anglican Church. Cromwell and Cranmer would probably have disagreed about how many sides a dice has, let alone the true means of salvation. I like that there is the room for disagreement on issues – that I can (sometimes) trust how my church leadership treats people and the priorities they have in engaging with the world, and thinking and teaching about how to live in it, whilst not necessarily agreeing with them on every little detail. I like that it admits doubt and says that this faith we live is as much about the choices we make as the things we feel. I want to stay with that. I read a really interesting piece earlier this year (I think it was by Tom Wright, but I can’t find it now, and would appreciate it if anyone can point me at it) about how one of the things Rowan Williams has been really good at is at letting the Church of England disagree in public as it seeks to respond to and engage with the world it finds itself in. I think the world is bad at having disagreements without falling apart at the seems, and disagreeing well, and in love, is something that the church has to offer.
But right now we’re not disagreeing well or in love, and I feel like the disagreement has become The Thing, and we’ve let the bigger picture get away from us. Seriously, how do we find the time to even care about the situation in Gaza, food crises in Africa, the devastating effects of hurricanes in Haiti and on the eastern seaboard of the USA, the huge increases in inequality and poverty in the UK, let alone praying and campaigning and acting around them, when we’re so concerned about whether or not you need a penis to lead more than one church. We’re spending so much time worrying about ‘how we are’ and ‘how we do’ that we’re losing sight of who we are and what we should do.
I’ve written my way into depression now. Maybe I’ll come out the end and hit acceptance. Not acceptance that women can’t be bishops now, or shouldn’t, biblically, be bishops ever. But acceptance that it will happen one day and that that 64% in the laity will grow, by more than the 2% it technically needs to. That the Church of England will free itself to actually live out all the gifts God gave all of its members, not just the boy ones, which is actually even more important than that the world around us sees us as engaged humans who care about the world rather than self-obsessed cranks. But right now I’m disappointed, and I’m hurt.
* and yeah, if you can only win your point by process, and not by a numeric majority, you’ve pretty much lost the argument, by the way.