Monday, 26 November 2012

The Church's Stained Glass Ceiling.

That the Church of England announced arguably the most progressive Archbishop appointment to date, and failed to give their blessing to women bishops in almost the same breath, perfectly illustrates the challenges that the institution, and its incoming caretaker Justin Welby, must face.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod that the church had lost “a measure of credibility” with the vote against women bishops, and may appear “wilfully blind” to the priorities of the society it serves. Visibly deflated, and all too aware of how the result would be perceived in a secular society in which the absence of equal opportunity is duly regarded as discrimination, Rowan Williams concluded the Church of England now has “a lot of explaining to do.”

The disenchantment, bordering disbelief, on the faces of the “yes” campaign perhaps requires a little less explanation however than the feelings and philosophy underpinning the apparent aversion to women becoming bishops.

Pete Myers, from the campaign group Together 4ward, penned an article on the Channel 4 News website, in which he outlined his support for the decision. Whilst regretful of “the pain” the outcome had caused, and conceding that women bishops were essentially inevitable, he believes the bible advises otherwise. Like many of a similar opinion, Mr Myers points the finger at the apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Timothy 2:12; “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.”

That section of scripture certainly does seem to support Mr Myer’s position, however he does not quote the complete sentence. After asserting that a woman should not have authority over a male counterpart in church, Paul goes further, concluding; “she must be quiet.” Now, why, I wonder, did Mr Myer not include that bit? If you want to ignore 2000 years of historical and socio-political context, then why stop at just an ecclesiastical glass ceiling? Paul actually advises that ladies should not only leave the altar duties to the gents, but also keep mum till they’re back in the car park.

In addition, if we are going to play things strictly by the book, then Leviticus 21:5 says; “Priests must not shave their heads or shave off the edges of their beards or cut their bodies.” That rules out tattoos and skinheads, and any vicar without the full Father Christmas chin warmer! If you can’t have women bishops, then the same goes for clean-shaven clergy, unless of course, you just plucked the scripture to justify a bit of good old fashioned sexism.

Certainly, the vote has been an embarrassment to many in the church, since it was passed by the priesthood, only falling foul of the laity. This army of able assistants occupies an array of non-professional positions in the Church of England, is predominantly female, and yet a fairly modest number of its membership were able to avert the advancement of women up to bishop status, thanks to an alarmingly laughable electoral system.

Personally, I find the entire debacle simply the latest example of the Church of England’s commitment to self-destructive marketing. The Christian faith should be something you could not give away fast enough, but when your PR campaign features celebrity endorsement from Bush and Blair, and the occasional mailshot with unwelcoming messages around abortion and homosexuality, you are making yourselves a pretty hard sell.  

The apostle Paul has indeed been a useful blueprint for many Christian believers, but like all the pioneers of the early church he is refreshing and accessible exactly because he was not perfect. When a religion is more head than heart, people tend to get hurt, and to really get to the heart of any movement, you don’t focus on the followers, but the one they are following. From what I have read, you would be hard pushed to find Jesus advocating church division through segregation of opportunity. Given a room full of people he would make a beeline for the disenfranchised, was moved by compassion not customs and tradition, and considered each case on merit. If there is a PR HQ for the C of E, the way forward might be getting back to basics, more Jesus focused, less jam making and judgemental. He He nnnnnn

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