Tuesday 8 February 2011

Discriminatory Louse on Lady’s Bonnet

As Buckinghamshire experiences its annual Burns Night Kilt Hire peaktime, recitations will roll of Robbie Burns’ poem To a Louse, on seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church, 1786:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

It w
ad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:

At a recent confirmation, I saw a louse in Church... It was a bonny evening with many candidates of all ages and a congregation of several hundred, and great joy and celebration. As I sat in the hall afterwards signing gifts and cards, a candidate in his late 20’s came up to me and, as often happens, we began talking about about his coming to Christ.

Formerly an atheist, he had found faith in a flourishing Evangelical church, but the biggest obstacle in his way had been what he called the Church of England’s sexist senior leadership structure and poor record on human rights. If his workplace behaved like that they'd be closed down. Here was a national institution claiming some kind of moral authority, but behaving in a way which he, and everyone in his office, found morally disgusting.

Steady on, I thought, and trotted out a line about tradition and variety. How could I say that? he asked. Everybody knows that in the workplace discriminatory is as discriminatory does. It’s no defence in an Equalities case to say you didn’t consider your discriminatory behaviour to be so, far less that the Pope told you to do it, or that you’d always done it, or that God does it. Anyway there was a happy ending, he said, because after four years’ delay, he had eventually found in his local Church a genuinely open and apostolic community. But when was the institutional national Church going to catch up?

As legislation for female bishops goes out for consultation, everything will be framed in terms of the problems experienced by a tiny minority of churchy dissidents. I don’t suppose anyone will speak up for those who don’t yet go to Church, like my confirmation candidate and his work colleagues. They don’t show up on our radar. Maybe that’s why there aren’t more of them being confirmed.

Great Soapy debates will be held in the next day or so, with much lather produced in good faith and many croc tears about mission and why congregations fail, and how sad it is that the average English Anglican is 61. It’s not going to change, though, is it, until we accept the hard truth that some of our cherished behaviour and attitudes can be a real stumbling block to those on the threshold of faith. The problem is with us and either we don’t really care that we are blocking the gospel, or we have to do something, perhaps the obvious, about it.


Gurdur said...

Um, yes, exactly?

I'm fascinated to see the Archbishop of Canterbury call for CofE clergy to do more to tackle the New Atheists (notably, though, without any call for talking with atheists in general. Yes, apologetics for many means talking at the victims). Yet what is so stunningly obvious for me as an atheist and outsider (a general, old-style atheist, not New) is that the CofE and various theorists like Eagleton cannot and I suspect simply will not understand that the basis for the success of the New Atheist message in public is not the logical part of tackling the illogical absurdities inherent in much Christian theology and apologia, but instead the success lies above all in the moral part of the message.

Too many believers love to think the general public fond of "moral convenience" and whatnottery; what they don't see is that the general public often do have a sense of morality, of "fair play", "natural justice" and so on, and it is exactly by tapping into that that the New Atheist message has been so wildly successful.

Bring this up with CofE clergy, and one often gets sneered at in patronizing or twittishly pseudo-intellectual ways. The sneer as last line of defence, the sneer as means of aggression as CofE clergy and apologists ignore their long decline and insist all critics are wrong. The refusal of the CofE to deal morally with theological questions.

I shall blog more on this. Over the Christmas/New Year period, after seeing a small rash of nasty trolling from various blogs loosely linked with the CofE, I kinda lost a lot of sympathy, so I've been fairly silent on the issues; but I shall blog at length on this, soon.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Tim, for (IMHO) a really key insight, which triggers two thoughts from me, one historical and one theological, both of which rather reinforce your approach:

(1) If you consider historically the social transformation of England between 1750 and 1850 (not saying that was a good thing, but just considering it as a historical phenomenon) and the driving power of Evangelical Christianity in that transformation, it's plain that what powered it was not Evangelical doctrine about God, but moral passion and consistency.

(2) Jesus didn't hand out abstract doctrines, but talked about everyday situations in life, adn challenged people to work out their own alignment from the ways they handled them. The sermon on the Mount is not a charter for anything abstract, or a discussion starter, but a call for a certain sort of aligned living.

Erika Baker said...

The problem, as far as I understand it, is that too many church people use the biblical examples of right and wrong as absolutes without analysing what it is about them that makes them right or wrong and how those underlying reasons can be transferred to modern moral problems and to relationships.

And so we get sneering about the ways of the world, about destructive individualism and a pick and mix approach to morals. There's a huge lack of engagement with why people believe and act as they do and a resulting appalling lack of respect for others.

And I'm back where I was once before - the real problem is a lack of empathy or of imagination.

Mike R said...


'the CofE and various theorists like Eagleton cannot and I suspect simply will not understand that the basis for the success of the New Atheist message in public is not the logical part of tackling the illogical absurdities inherent in much Christian theology and apologia, but instead the success lies above all in the moral part of the message'

Yep this is really, really important.

But a) some of us in the CoE do understand (if only dimly) b) Eagleton surely does to some extent c)the moral part of the message has be based on logic. If you can show something is illogical then you undermine its moral message.

If New Atheism cannot resist the attacks of Eagleton then its moral authority will falter. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander here.

Mike R said...


'the CofE and various theorists like Eagleton cannot and I suspect simply will not understand that the basis for the success of the New Atheist message in public is not the logical part of tackling the illogical absurdities inherent in much Christian theology and apologia, but instead the success lies above all in the moral part of the message'

Yep this is really, really important.

But a) some of us in the CoE do understand (if only dimly) b) Eagleton surely does to some extent c)the moral part of the message has be based on logic. If you can show something is illogical then you undermine its moral message.

If New Atheism cannot resist the attacks of Eagleton then its moral authority will falter. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander here.

Mike Dowler said...

Actually, Alan, I beg to disagree. If the great stumbling block was the issue of 'sexist' leadership, we would have seen a significant growth in the last 20 years or so in those churches which have male and female leadership. This has not generally been the case - it is Newfrontiers, rather than the methodists (for example), which have shown the growth over this time.

That's not to say that there aren't issues around gender and leadership that need to be discussed. But I think it is extremely arrogant to simply write off those who are thoughtfully committed to male leadership on Biblical grounds as a *tiny* minority, or to blame them for failure in mission of the church. I suspect that a significantly larger factor is that many in the church are not really sure what they believe, or unable to teach about Jesus with real conviction. You will recall a survey several years ago in which a third of male clergy, and two thirds of female clergy, did not believe that our Lord was born of a virgin.

You refer to the sermon on the mount. I would suggest that, rather than being about behaviour, it is about attitude - our attitude to ourselves in view of God's requirements. It teaches us that what we thought were our best efforts fall a long way short of God's standards. Whilst not directly related, this does inform our thoughts on the nature of leadership. It reminds us that it is up to God, not us, to decide what is right. If you want to argue that Scripture calls us to have female leaders (and is so clear on the subject that they should even be imposed on those who disagree), then please do. But let's not base our decisions as a church purely on what appeals to current human values. To do so is to relegate Jesus to the role of human philosopher.

Gurdur said...

Mike R said... ".... If New Atheism cannot resist the attacks of Eagleton then its moral authority will falter. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander here.

*LOL* *ROFL* I am really bloody sorry, but do you seriously think New Atheism has suffered at all from the attacks of Eagleton? Puh-leeeeze. Give me a break. I would be one of the first to record any such success on the street.

I speak as someone quite unsympathetic to New Atheism. I speak as a blogger who has very often very savagely critiqued New Atheism and critiqued people like Richard Dawkins.

And I am telling you that Eagleton has not landed one single punch on New Atheism that has had any lasting effect whatsover. I am telling you that Rowan Williams has been more successful than Terry Eagleton in critiquing New Atheism, something which should give you much pause for thought.

I enjoy reading some of Terry Eagleton. I like some of his thought-provoking essays. I will also point out that they are most often badly incomplete and uncompleted, and sometimes simply over-intellectualized and missing a point.

If you think Eagleton has had the slightest bit of real success attacking New Atheism (and his last effort, linked to above, was a dismal exercise in mere, empty ad hom sneering), then I strongly suggest you get out of the CofE and Christian ghettos, and you actually look around the wider blogosphere and talk with general members of the public. Eagleton has been remarkably unsuccessful, and bluntly, I would cheer him on had he shown any ability at success.

Your thoughts remind me of how some like to think sneering at the New Atheists is some sort of effective come-back -- "what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander".

Dream on. The continuing decline in church attendence and membership should tell you something, as too the continuing success of Richard Dawkins and others like him. The sheer lack of any effective CofE response to the New Atheism is remarkable, in my eyes, mystifying and incredible; I speak as an atheist and outsider, but in my eyes, the CofE could do far better quite easily -- and doesn't.

And I find that blinking well baffling.

Feel free to continue, but confusing sneering with sucess is a very basic mistake.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks to all for comments. I was only reporting conversation from a recent confirmee, not writing anyone off. What you mke of the experience of my confirmee is up to you. But may I suggest you don't simply write him off as some kind of secular bogeyman, because he isn't, and because there are thousands like him who struggle with Patrarchy and injustice in the Church. They dn't show up on the radar because they don't come.

As to Church growth, the best example I know of is the deanery of around thirty churches we have where usual Sunday attendance has gone up from around 1100 to just under 3000 over the past five years. That is encouraging growth, not quite every Church, but all but five. There is no particular weighting in that growth towards any particular expression of Christianity or attitude to women's ministry. It's very hard to argue about the people who don't turn up, but unless we begin to take them seriously it's hardly surprising they don't. Lastly I am entirely bemused by the difference between the early Church, which simply went to people as they were (as per Paul in Athens) and was not paranoid about their culture, and the fear and hysteria about modern culture displayed by many churches. If we actually believe in the Incarnation, that Christ is risen, that there is a Holy Spirit, we should be able to live within a culture critically but wholeheartedly, rather than having to root our life in some idealised past patriarchal order.

My reference to a tiny minority was becasue the number of parishes in the C of E in the petitioning community is about 3% nationwide, and accounts for around 1% of the Church membership in this diocese. That is a minority.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Erika, I so agree it's probably about empathy and imagination.

Among those who decide to engage strongly with religion, the religion is probably enough to get them there, and once they arrive, they can come to a leisurely view about people whose patriarchal attitudes may have seemed bizarre beforehand, among other reasons because they engage with them as people. They're still often disagreed with, but within a broad framework of understanding and trying to see things from their point of view.

Among those who are, as this man was, unchurched, they have no relationship within which to set seemingly bizarre sexist behaviour. Similarly those who were Christians, often in strongly Catholic or Conservative Evangelical styles, and have rejected it.

So those are the people who really don't show up on the radar, and I would commend the wisdom of Tim's point about the moral force of their convictions. As far as they can see discrimination is wrong, full stop, because it blames people for being what they can't help being.

Now for Christians, I would urge we have even stronger reasons in our theology of creation and redemption to reject discrimination - neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, female nor male, all one in Christ Jesus is a value to uphold and celebrate, not explain away with a lot of detailed anorak tendentiousness about how it doesn't really mean what it says about anything but narrow questions of personal salvation, or only applies to everyone else to whom we are willing to cede some kind of notional equality but not the actual people with whom we engage.

Anonymous said...

VG here.

Thank you, +Alan, for representing your local Recently on the Radar chap's point of view. Mike Dowling's, on the other hand, is all too common, and is the kind which pushes me out of Anglicanism, in which I struggle to stay.

Being a woman is not only something I can't help - and in this day of gender reassignment, I suppose I could - it's something I don't even configure as blameworthy or blameless or within that realm of consideration. It is what it is. Unlike centuries of "Biblical Christian" practice, which assuredly finds merely being in possession of a uterus an offence, let alone attempting ordained pastoral work whilst being female.

These are dark times for being a woman and a Christian. We keep soldiering on, not knowing what the endpoint will be, so it's good to have you along as a companion, rather than feeling it's just us and God.

Mike Dowler said...

Alan, I was referring to your statement that "It’s not going to change, though, is it, until we accept the hard truth that some of our cherished behaviour and attitudes can be a real stumbling block to those on the threshold of faith. The problem is with us and either we don’t really care that we are blocking the gospel, or we have to do something, perhaps the obvious, about it.", which appeared to be your personal comment. Apologies though, if I have misrepresented your views.

Some background might be useful - I have been a Christian ten years, coming from a very strong 'new atheistic' position at university. I am extremely grateful that the divisions you list do not divide us, and mindful of James' exhortation not to show favouritism, but I do not think that this changes the equally clear passages regarding gender roles.

And VG, you are simply setting up a straw man to knock down. Neither anyone in the Bible, nor I myself, consider it an offence to posses a uterus, nor for a woman to undertake pastoral work. Many of us do believe however that it is not God's plan for his church to have female leaders, though (regardless of what we ourselves might like), and so we are currently fighting for the ability to avoid having such strictures imposed on us.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thank you for your comments all. Mike, Are you really saying that the things we do and the attitudes we take in Church can't be stumbling blocks to people on the threshold of faith? Not uniquely having a sexist leadership structure, but that among other things, and certainly that for this particular person.

So what is it about women that make them unfit to respond to the call of God to leadership in the Church? The Queen, for example, is supreme governor of the Church of England. She has been a particulary conscientious and inspiring one for almost sixty years. There is absolutely no evidence that her gender makes her less fit for purpose than was her father before her. All over the country female ministers of word and sacrament minister mostly faithfully and effectively with absolutey no evidence that God blesses their ministries less or more than anyone else's. If this matters so much, why doesn't God give us some sign that it does?

There are various texts in the NT, all capable of being interpreted in a missional rather than patriarchal way. They are never all taken literally, I note. For example people whose wives cut their hair and fail to wear hats when they pray urge literalism about women teaching in Church. Why the inconsistency? The leadership of the early Church, if you look, for example, at the snapshot in Romans 16, was one third two thirds mixed from both genders, including a prime apostle of the Church who was female. The Church ordiained women to some orders of monistry right up to the eleventh century, when the shutters came down, not because of anything in the Bible, but because of a medieval and unbiblical anthropology from Aristotle that suggested women were less than men.

We inherited this order from the medievals and are now emerging from it, backe towards a far more pluriform sociology of leadership, far closer, in fact, to that of the early Church.

All I understand VG to have been doing was telling her story. She's not setting up an argument, just explaining how she feels about living in a Church which proclaims the message of Ephesians about gender, then denies it by its practice. Surely everyone is entitled to their feelings.

Finally it amazes me that people when who profess to believe the gospel say they don't care if they put stumbing blocks in the way of others coming to faith. You seem to think this is all about religion and free choice. I think it's a matter of life and death, and if the things I do are obscuring the freedom we are offered in Christ I should do something about it.

Finally, nobody is doing anything but try and find some empathy and understanding for the people who self-exclude from , or almost cannot enter, Church because they can't see any consistency in the way it acts in this primary moral matter.

Anonymous said...

VG here, briefly. Yes, +Alan, I wasn't setting up an argument, but telling my story, which is in the context of my lived experience of denigration, based on my sex and gender, by fellow Christians, who believe in male superiority, gender essentialism, and complementarity in the face of the evident and overwhelming diversity of God's creation, both human and non-human.

Campaigning against gender parity in the Church because "it isn't God's plan to have female leaders in his church" is just another bullying, casual slap in the face for women: one in the daily series which places other people's cultural baggage about possession of a uterus above our human status. There isn't a day in my life where I don't have to fight to be dealt with as human first, femaleness irrelevant, where male behaviours aren't normative, and where acting like a human being isn't seen as a failure to defer.

I can't manage atheism but oh, it's so tempting, just on that basis alone.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

One other point strikes me about the notion that only the faithless believe with John Adams, second president of the US that equality "is founded entirely in the Christian doctrine that we are all children of the same Father, all accountable to Him for our conduct to one another, all equally bound to respect each other's self love.” The insinuation, as well as being unjust is untrue. It takes guts and sticking power to stay with someone who does not accept your validity out of love, and can be damaging (like partners who stay in toxic marriages) or, hopefully, redemptive.

I am a victim of discriination by the HUngarian government. On the face of it I am more Hungarian than anything else and have an absute right to a Hungarian passport. However by the terms of the natinality law currently in force, my right is limited because it was through a claim would run through my mother and I was born before 1957. If either of those things were different my right would be absolute.

Now, how do I react? I have to decide how much holding a Hungarian passport matters to me. If it really did, I would wade in and make a claim, and pursue the matter vigorously. If it doesn't, I shrug my shoulders and carry on.

It is precisely because their faith matters to many women being discriminated against that they feel it so acutely. Being discriminated against by an institution that matters to you is much harder than the same thing from a stranger. To present them as somehow less faithful than the people who cannot or will not understand the implications of their discriminatory behaviour is false and unfair.

June Butler said...

The controversy in the Church of England over women bishops seems a little quaint to us in the Episcopal Church, since we settled the matter quite a few years ago. However, we have no illusions that equality for women is a fait accompli in the church or in the country. The daily battle for even simple recognition remains.

That certain bishops do not care to be in the same room with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is not only to do with her presiding at the ordination of 2 partnered, gay bishops, but also due to the fact that she is a female Primate, in other words due to her isness as a woman. For that reason, since I am a woman, I tend to take the negative attitudes toward our PB rather personally, since I have the same isness.

The passages in the Bible about women not being suited to positions of leadership don't seem to square with Jesus' attitude toward women in the Gospels. Perhaps my view is heretical, but if there seems to be a conflict between what Jesus said and did and other passages in the Scriptures, the Gospel account trumps the others.

Gary said...

Perhaps we're forgetting that the biggest stumbling block is the Lord Jesus himself? Many people outside stumble over his claims and saving work because they just can't accept it. (Ps 118, 1 Peter 2)

Lapinbizarre said...

Popping up every three months to say, "fine, thought-provoking, encouraging post", is not particularly constructive, but fine, thought-provoking, encouraging post. Thanks.

Tom said...

hmmm .. I just discovered this post and I think (correct me if I am wrong Bishop Alan) it is talking about a conversation I had with the Bishop as he was signing my gift from St James GX.

I am “quite upset” (but not outraged) at being called a Louse!

Firstly let me introduce myself. My name is Tom, and I worship at St James Gerrards Cross where a few Sundays ago I met Bishop Alan after the confirmation service.

What I recall I said were ... "what is your opinion on your colleagues who converted to Catholicism?" ... Bishop Alan then proceeded to give an answer about the significance or insignificance of denominations within the Christian faith. I saw where he was going and added .. "I meant their stance on the ordination of women as Bishops .. because coming from an atheist background I see them as just sexist bigots"

Then Bishop Alan gave his answer but cut short by one of our vicars because I was holding up the queue.

So that's what I recall as the events, if this incident was at all the one the Bishop is quoting from on this blog post.

Assuming that it is .. here are some of my thoughts.

1. I am not in my late 20s although I am flattered :) .. I will be 40 soon.

2. I have been churched! It was my church experience that turned me into an atheist! Given my age and the fact I went to a fee paying Christian (although non-conformist) public school, I had to attend Church 7 days a week from the age of 9 to 18. In addition I attended Religious Education lessons up to O level. This was a time when RE was really Christian education. No other faiths were represented or taught in those classes.

2. I come from a family and culture that is highly superstitious and deity fearing .. pretty solid building blocks for a good God fearing Christian ... BUT I found "knowledge" especially science (I did my degree in Mathematics) .. so I realised that most Christians talk bollox

3. I do wonder my coming to Faith in this last year is really a disguise for a mental breakdown. It certainly is shaped by a sense of failure in life, but not wanting to turn to drink or drugs (I have done that and it doesn't help).

4. Back on the topic of those sexist Bishops and what the bible says. This will now turn into bit of a rant. Sorry!

The key people that have helped me to faith this year have been women. One of them is training to be a vicar at the moment and even as skeptical as I am, you can just see the calling dripping out of this person. So for some elderly m****n to say that he refuses to ordain this person because they are female just seem absurd to me.

What I have also noticed in my year in the church that many men are drawn (or dragged) to faith by what I would term “the honey trap”. It is the women that have the strength and depth of faith and the men decide to follow because they have fallen in love with the women. Although I am not sure whether this parallels with the story of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden?

I also wondered whether those “learned theologians” would follow through in all aspects of the Catholic tradition … you know the one about not marrying but dedicating your life to God? I compare this with the examples of Buddhist monks in China who were forced to marry and forced to have children. Many of them returned to a celibate life in a monastery after religious tolerance returned. Would these Bishops make that same sacrifice to leave their wife and children behind now that they are member of the Catholic clergy? I suspect not.

Then there is the word of God in the Bible that somehow decrees women as not being able to take up Church leadership. This great book also degree that the descendants of Abraham are “the” master race and that their slaughter of the men, women and children of Canaan was a glorious act of God. I still struggle as to whether to take its contents literally or figuratively.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for joining the conversation, Tom. The honest answer is that our meeting was about a half of the basis of my blogpost, along with another parallel conversation on a similar occasion elsewhere. I try not to put anything on the blog which would obviously identify any individual. But if you'd like to be identified, that's great. I'd always want the control in that situation to be with you. And it was good to have some more background, and a clearly formulated statement of your strand of the composite conversation.

As to women, I think the various texts need to be read carefully. Many who refuse to allow women a role in Church leadership are quite happy to marry people who cut their hair and, for all I know, to trust the word of Cretans. Distinguishing cultural wrapper from gospel gift is not an exact science, and has to be done on the basis of life in the Holy Spirit. If you wanted to follow up text by text, the book that helped me work this out, above all in some ways, was Gilbert Bilezikian's “Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman's Place in Church and Family.” Don't agree with everything he says, but he does at least take the texts seriously.

My puzzlement, years ago, was that in places Paul seemed to be decreeing silence for women in Church; but it's plain he allowed, indeed encouraged them to prophesy in Church. Putting the whole picture together so as to vindicate the integrity of Paul on this subject was actually not impossible.

I would long for a Romans 16 Church, where ministry is allocated on the basis of spiritual call and giftedness, not gender stereotyping that suppresses and rejects what is plainly God-giftedness.

So I think we agree, and I'm delighted you were willing to join the conversation as you! I do hope all's going well in your faith and life.

Archbeship Anthony said...

Hi Bishop Alan

Sorry for being abrupt but I think soon even the Roman Catholics will even ordain Women, as Jesus first appeared to a Woman when he had risen from the Dead.

I know a woman who I work with at Work who is licencend to officiate 'Last Rights' which I know is a Roman Catholic Thing.

I remember 3 things about my dream where I was made up to be Bishop. I was working with mainly offenders (Railway Tresspassers) and all demoninations of Church and some RCs converted to Anglican and then become ordained, We burrowed a bishop for bishopdom events such as Comfirmations which I was present at all (Exeter or Carlisle) until the question came who ordains the RC Women who were acting as priests and I had the first Lady Auxilary Bishop as there were no Men who had the right attidude. For that reason most of the Railway Project Priests were ladies.

Many Thanks


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