Monday 26 November 2012

Church & State: Another fine mess?

The parliamentary reaction to this week’s synod vote tells a powerful tale. Wearing his Garrick Club tie, the Second Church Estates Commissioner answered questions from MP's, all of whom expressed amazement and moral repugnance about the official and institutionalised sexism of the Established Church. (note to overseas readers — The Garrick Club is an exclusive Gentleman's club in the West End).

The Garrick Club Tie Gaffe (if such it was) underlined an important aspect of the problem: the Church claims to be far more than a private organisation like a golf club, masonic lodge, or Gentleman's London hang-out. It claims to be good news for everyone, and the fury of our legislators when they see it acting as though it were a private club, disconnected from society, was unmistakable.

In our present context it appears that institutionalized sexism undermines everything. If a vicar smacked his children publicly, it would radically undermine their moral authority. Saying that corporal punishment was in the Bible, as it is, or parents had a duty to discipline their children, or that it was a matter of sincere conviction that children should be beaten for their own good, would only squander more moral authority.

This is not Guardian reading political liberalism. All theology and ethics are contextual — they only mean anything, as with all aspects of the Word, when they take flesh. A society populated by people bearing the consciousness and identity our great grandmothers had wouldn't find this question urgent, but ours does. This is an assertion of realism not liberalism.

In the light of several conversations this week all round, the realisation is creeping over me, like cold water in a hot bath, that when everything contingent has been talked out, this does all boil down to sex discrimination, no more, no less. Discriminatory is as discriminatory does. We're not fooling anyone, not even ourselves any more by pretending otherwise. The failure of any male headship argument to register in the House of Commons debate implies that, politically speaking, those who hold new model Complementarian views would be better off explaining the moral value of that particular kind of discrimination than pretending it is not what it manifestly is.

Look, nobody actually believes “men are the same as women.” The question is why should we impose an artificial difference on men and women that renders women permanently subordinate? It hasn’t always been so, even in our tradition. In the Bronze Age, Deborah Judged Israel, and that was OK. Unlike possessing a womb, subordination of women is not inevitable or, these days, generally desirable. New model Complementarianism as expressed last week is an elaborate three card trick. You begin by saying (1) everyone is equal, then (2) that they're different, then (How do they do that? watch out for the Queen of Hearts) (3) it's OK if woman are subordinated because that's a difference. Innit.  Ah but you see, it's precisely the subordination that isn't equal, or acceptable to our MP's. They think it's inequality. Because it is.

Another trope that's been doing the rounds is about the state imposing its standards on the Church. This happens all the time when churches are forced to conform to the Charities Act, or fire regulations, or the National Insurance Act.

St Paul met this challenge in Romans 13. When he told the Christians to obey the civil power because it does not wield the sword in vain to accomplish right he was talking about Nero. The man who executed him. But he believed what he said.

Look, if sex discrimination is actually wrong in our context (and all moral convictions can only be formulated or expressed contextually), than for the state to stop it is no more questionable than the state preventing the Church discriminating racially, or beating children, or owning slaves. Those last two, incidentally, also came with a rich Biblical pedigree, in the days they were morally acceptable enough for the largest slave owner in England was the Society for the Propogation of the Gospel. They may have been OK then, but now they are not.

People ask, can't we all just forget this stuff and preach the gospel? It's a lovely thought, but what this parliamentary debate makes clear is that if part of the "Gospel" is treating women as subordinate, incapable of offering service as they are gifted by virtue of their sex alone, it's bad news to the people it is trying to reach, not gospel. Most people hold that sex discrimination is wrong in the Church or anywhere else not because they are wild left Guardian readers or secularists (though they could be either or both of those things), but as the natural consequence of their deep moral convictions, their Gospel as they have received it.

Change comes in such matters not by compulsion, but by a vision. That is how St Peter, on the roof at Caesarea, acquired a new approach to living by Kosher laws. Change will come from a bigger vision of humanity, in which gender is not a means to impose artificial limitations on people, either the body of the Church, or the world, or gifted and called individuals, but rather an aspect of being the way God creates us and equips us to be good news to the whole creation.

Whatever the procedural arcana of the General Synod, politically well-informed people are now saying it's probably a one-clause measure within two years or curtains for the establishment. The Church would lose its implicit broad spectrum engagement with public life but, trying to look on the bright side, could design a catchy club tie for itself.


Claire Alcock said...

The only hope for the headship brigade is cross pollination with the charismatic evangelicals whose theology of gifting by the Spirit tends to eventually lead to revelation that women are equal in role as well as being. This realisation has come to several high profile evangelicals I believe. John Coles of the New Wine movement and Krishna Kandiah, Eangelical Alliance, spring to mind.

Harriet said...

Good for you Sir. Many of us women love Jesus but have long since given up the churches for the reasons you state - though here in Scotland the SEC voted for women bishops 10 years ago - except surprise surprise we don't have any! Thankfully the message does seem to be getting through - can the ACC stop being 'nice'? Jesus wasn't nice, Paul certainly wasn't! Best wishes (I was at Somerville a bit before you but knew a few at Balliol - before Oxford 'got' gender equality! MB aka 'Harriet')

Nancy Wallace said...

We can't "just all forget this stuff and preach the gospel" because preaching the gospel is about preaching who Jesus is and what he teaches. Jesus of Nazareth was not sexist. He did not teach a 'headship' doctrine' nor any idea of apostolic succession that depended on gender. In his life and teaching he treated women as equal in a way that was astonishing in the culture of the time. It is equally astonishing that after 2000 years we Christians are still struggling with this issue. I feel the scales have dropped from my eyes in the last week. We can't continue with the ridiculous pretence that it is alright for the C of E to officially say both that women can (and are priests)and it is acceptable for some in the church to say it is impossible or even sinful for women to be priests or bishops. Before last Tuesday I was prepared to compromise. Now I think a single clause measure is the only way forward, although that does not mean I want to eject brothers and sisters in Christ who think differently on this.

June Butler said...

Alan, about the Garrick Club tie, I wonder now if Tony Baldry mightn't have worn the tie deliberately to make a point.

The biblical arguments against women bishops have been made time and again, ad nauseam. We all know them and repeating them will not change minds. I've dealt with that sort of attitude in my own parish church in a search for a new rector, and I found it so very dispiriting that I would never consider serving on a search committee again. It's bad enough in a single parish, but when an entire church is mired in discrimination because of the votes of a few, then, as you say, the church does not bring good news.

UKViewer said...

I think that Nancy has hit the nail, squarely on the head. All of the accommodation, being nice needs to be removed from the debate, because it got nowhere, apart from a lot of heartache and pain from so many Women in ministry and for most of the laity that I know. (I don't know many Bishops, but those I do, support the Ministry of Women).

A single clause measure to Select and Consecrate women as Bishops should be passed, with a simple majority being required. And it should be immediately, not in 2015 or later.

Existing provision for the dissenters would than continue as it wouldn't have been repealed by the single clause.

That is a thorn in the flesh to be debated once Women are in place in the Episcopate and when tempers have cooled.

Anonymous said...

Good points exceptionally well made, Bishop Alan.

I had not heard the complementarian argument until it was used by the Archbishop of York this year when he was defending himself against accusations of homophobia by his old Cambridge College. He said: “Marriage is built around complementarity of the sexes, and therefore the Institution of Marriage is a support for stable families and societies.... We know of no time in history before men and women came together in marriage. The reason for this lies in the difference between, and complementary nature of, the two sexes.” He used the same argument to say that racism is wrong but gender discrimination is not wrong in the same way: “For me, racial equality rests on the doctrine that there is only one race – the human race – and any difference of treatment on ethnic grounds is therefore unjustifiable. But in the long history of feminism, for example, we find another view based on the complementarity of men and women. In short, should there be equality between the sexes because a woman can do anything a man can do, or because a good society needs the different perspectives of women and men equally?... the question of equality between the sexes cannot be completely addressed by the paradigm of racial equality.”

This was, to me, a peculiar and unconvincing interpretation of the gospel and the world - made no less so by the Archbishop’s refusal to see equality as a justice issue. He said: “...the question for me is one of justice, and not equality. Justice is the primary category. It does not mean not treating everyone the same way but giving everyone what he or she needs or deserves...”

I was surprised when the same argument immediately found its way into the Church of England’s official response to the Government consultation on equal marriage. This said, for example, that same-sex marriage “has never, by definition, been possible” because “the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.”

This highly controversial view was put forward as a response from “the Church of England” - in my name, therefore - and later turned out to have been approved by the House of Bishops. I suppose it takes a suffragan to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

This is not the first time the Church of England has been wrong about issues of equality or gender or sex or sexuality and it won’t be the last. From the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act through birth control, gender equality and homosexuality we get it wrong time and time again, but we do usually get it right eventually; even if it is only about half a generation or so after everyone else.

Jon said...

Somehow I don't think Garrick's is like the most common sort of Gentleman's Club in America, since those are also known as Strip Clubs.

Savi Hensman said...

Equality legislation is too blunt an instrument, and could rule out even pastoral discretion on the part of a bishop, who might balk at trying to force a congregation to accept a woman vicar or disciplining a priest for refusing to celebrate same-sex marriages. I think we in the C of E, while taking seriously the dismay of many outside, have to resolve this problem through our own culture and structures.

WeepingCross said...

I'm going to attempt to argue at our diocesan clergy meeting tomorrow that the reason we should bother to accommodate the trads is precisely not about being 'nice', but because, as flawed human beings, it's only by being confronted by and forced to confront people that we disagree with that we stand any chance of advancing towards the truth. If we shove out the trad Catholics and the trad Evangelicals we will lose people whose prejudices keep us linked to things which the Holy Spirit does actually work through. Our prejudices aren't sufficient to do that on their own: we actually *need* the Other. I don't really expect people even to understand what I'm on about, let alone agree.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your musings on this +Alan and others. I've been giving last week some thought and it seems apt that I preached on Rom.14 on Sunday (as we are running through Romans). Paul there is trying to sort out a debacle between gentile and jewish believers where dissension and rowing is causing a massive fault line down the church in Rome. He points out that those that are free from what's gone B4 are strong in faith and those that are less free are weak in their faith.

Possibly as a church we should see this as a Rom.14 disputable matter situation as it's clearly "disputed" by both sides, both of whom love the Lord and seek to obey his word - & I believe Scripture is not unequivocal on the matter. Rom.14 lays pastoral and pragmatic principles for us to navigate through. Paul's way fwd is for acceptance between the two (neither one acting superior), I guess with a hope that the church can stay together as one.

The "opponents" need to give up their freedom to be in a church with no women bishops, and the "proponents" need to give up their freedom to have identical women bishops (or at least the traditionalists substantially safeguarded), each for the sake of the others' conscience.

One thing to remember is that despite what everyone is saying a third of the laity voted against the measure - now that is not a small indiscriminate minority. If you're interested I would have voted for the measure had I been present.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Very grateful for taking this forward so helpfully and thoughtfully, all. I've no problem with complementarian as a term, if it means saying that men and women are different and can live in ways that complement each others' identities. What I object to is using this simple observation and ideal to drive a three card trick. Simple binarism about gender is biological nonsense, of course; and biology is an account of an aspect of Creation that we ignore at our peril. W/C I share your ideal about the necessity of having people we disagree with in Church. Of course. The bit I don't get, and nobody has explained to me, is why writing "protection" against the Monstrous Regiment into a statutory instrument is inadequate, and if it is not written, against all the normal conventions of statutory drafting, into the statute itself, this is an act of gross persecution, ethnic cleansing some call it, that inevitably drives people out of the Church. Really? Nobody is shoving anyone out of anywhere and if people began to take some responsibility for their own actions we'd get further along the road. Savi, I agree really with you on this. Gareth, thanks for bringing in a new and very hopeful dimension and reminding us that after Romans 13 comes Romans 14. I'm amazed how the kind of issues that racked early Christian communities are coming up all around us, and I'm sure study of Paul's responses is an underused resource in solving them. The measure that (just) failed was an attempt to do what you suggest. One interesting additional dimension is the sudden discovery that taking care for things honoarable in the sight of all (another Romans principle that would require a single clause measure) suddenly weighed onto the pitch next — it's an interesting mix.

Anonymous said...

There's really no argument for why women can be priests, but not bishops, is there?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

er... no there isn't. The Catholic way orders are indivisble so you would begin with bishops. From a Protestant point of view it's teaching that's the problem, and priests do that anyway. So this, ultimately, is all about nothing.

Tom Hengel said...

Yes, this is discrimination. The young men in Greensboro, NC, USA, did not wait for Woolworth's to change the rules...they sat at the lunch counter in spite of the rules. Having a "smoking section" may "protect" the rights of smokers, but it is offensive and damaging to the non-smokers. I believe there are currently episcopal openings in the UK. Bold nominating committees need to put forth the names of only women and 3 moral, courageous bishops need to stand and consecrate them. If committees won't nominate, consecrate women bishops to remain in their positions as Deans, Canons,and Rectors. Fill the lunch counter stools of the Church of England with women bishops and fight the damned rules at every turn.

Dr Venetia Nye said...

Thankyou, your blogs are a godsend! I am a lifelong lay member of the C of E who has just left in protest following the Synod vote. I found I could not in conscience remain a member of an organisation that appears to practise institutionalised sex discrimination, it goes against what I believe in as a Christian, doctor and mother of 4 daughters. There does not appear to be any provision made for people like me, but then I would not necessarily expect there to be, since this is my choice. It is however encouraging to find I am not alone in my views. In retrospect it is probably a good thing the measure was not passed with its divisive appeasements; the emperor has been seen to have no clothes, and hopefully some light is being shed along with the heat.I would hope a single clause measure can be passed next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.
When the talking is done, I wonder what action will actually be taken? Would the diocese of Oxford consider following the example of Bristol in passing a vote of no confidence?

Minnie said...

Measured and helpful analysis, +Alan - thank you.
Am now officially a crone, and I still don't get why so many of the male of the species are so frightened of women (otherwise, why would they go to such extreme lengths to suppress us and deny us even a reduced form of parity?).
Depressing to reflect that this is, as so many other aspects of human life, about nothing more than power.

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