92 Women bishops – a reflection

women bps

I belong to the generation which once accepted as cast in stone that the clerical profession in the Church of England was male-only territory. My own acquiescence in this situation was reinforced by a knowledge of the way that the Eastern Orthodox (and the Catholic Church) thought on the matter. They were unable to accept change in this area (or in any other!) and I assumed that Anglican church would never decide to abandon its claim to ‘catholicism’ by considering the claims of women for priesthood, let alone episcopacy.

By the time the Anglican Church in England accepted the right of women to be ordained in 1992, my thinking had shifted considerably. I had begun to understand some of the deeper reasoning that prevented the Orthodox Church from accepting women to occupy a sacred role in the church, and it was not very edifying. According to Scripture (Leviticus) an issue of blood, including menstruation, made the individual unclean. In the Orthodox book of rules, called the Rudder, or Guide, no woman could receive communion or even enter church at the time of her period because of this uncleanness or impurity. Behind this reasoning lies a primitive horror of blood that makes her taboo. Such a reaction to the mystery of menstrual bleeding is of course far older than Christianity or even Judaism, but has been there in primitive thinking from the dawn of time. This kind of reasoning, I felt, was way out of date at the time of Jesus. It could hardly be appealed to in the twentieth century (or the twenty first!). An attempt to argue women out of priesthood was to some degree steeped in this kind of pre-rational sensitivity.

Knowing the history of an idea often helps one to remove its power to impress and convince. Once I had personally encountered some of these unedifying roots of misogynist attitudes in the church, I was not likely to be convinced by all the special pleading of those who argued that Jesus only chose men. No, as far as I was concerned, the prejudice against women being ordained was far more rooted in cultural, pre-rational feelings than any serious theology. How could anyone seriously argue against the equality of the sexes when at least some of the reasons for their inequality had been exposed by this appeal to history and anthropology?

The case for the ordination of women is not just about equality and fairness. My own studies in the nature and dysfunctions of leadership have shown me that in some important respects, women are less likely to abuse their power than men. In particular they are statistically less likely to suffer from the personality disorder known Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The exact reasons for women being less likely to be drawn into this disorder cannot be discussed here but probably are connected to the fact that women, as a rule, seek a consensual rather than a confrontational solution to problems. I hate generalisations about the sexes as much as anyone else, but it is apparent from common sense observation that there are differences between the sexes and some of them make women better able to perform the functions of priesthood. It would probably also be true to say that each of the sexes brings different strengths and gifts to the tasks of priesthood. I am still pondering from the lecture earlier this week the implications of the theology of God as ‘mother’ and the idea of mothering as being an apt metaphor for the pastoral care.

Having placed women firmly into the role of priesthood, it is but a small step for them to become bishops. Episcopacy itself in the Anglican Church has become far more challenging today than it was and it is no longer possible for a bishop to get his/her way by simply expressing a point of view. Like with all authority positions, bishops are under challenge as never before. But there is a particular reason for welcoming bishops from the ranks of women priests at this time. This is because it is suggested that the pool of talented men to serve in this function has begun to dry up. Able candidates for the top jobs are in short supply. To have a cohort of able women to draw on for the next generation of episcopal appointments may give the leadership of the Church of England a shot in the arm which it needs. Perhaps the women bishops about to achieve preferment may bring in an entirely new feel to the Church of England. Perhaps they will also bring into the church a sensitivity to the issues of power abuse with which this blog is concerned. Let us hope so.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “92 Women bishops – a reflection

  1. Thanks for a clear and useful historical perspective, Stephen. But I’m afraid I’m going to disagree with you. Women are not so different to men. We can actually get nastier, when our children are threatened for example. But we are more similar than different. Margaret Thatcher was one of your examples of narcissism wasn’t she? I have myself been the victim of women who don’t care for other women on their territory, and watched as a friend was bullied out of her church by the new vicar’s wife for just this reason. Women who do well in a male dominated society fall into groups. Some women are simply too good at what they do to be overlooked, no matter what the prejudices against. Some women priests turn out to be Angela Tilby! Others, just as in any other walk of life, are the pretty little blonde the boss fancied, or the aggressive “couldn’t care less about anyone else” kind of person with sharp elbows who was always going to “get on” regardless. Or various other types. The Church is simply no different. I absolutely dread the situation, which may arise, where a diocese is so keen to maximise the strengths of women in ministry that they appoint some high powered woman who is just not right for the job. Some people look at these things with eyes closed. Women are no more automatically wonderful than men are!

  2. I rank integrity higher than ability and achievement, and love higher than integrity. That’s what I want in leaders.
    Thanks – interesting article, and also noteworthy from English Athena.

  3. I am of aware that it is extremely dangerous to make generalisations about the sexes. But the text books do suggest that men on a 60-40 ratio are more like to suffer from NPD than women. I know that women can outdo men on every scale of bitchiness but I have just noticed that women tend to cooperate while men tend to compete. Notice I use the word ‘tend’. so there is no black and white rules about this. As we sometimes bring personal stuff in, the thing I remember from school days was the endless competitiveness that took place. It was exhausting. I just wanted to settle down and get on with things without the constant comparing that used to go on. I had understood that there were areas of cooperation among young women, though I understand nowadays that there is a tendency to be bitchy over body shape and looks. University was an oasis after those years of competition. You did the things that interested you and you were allowed to pursue them without inteference. The great psychoanylist Heinz Kohut only tells us about one female patient for narcissism while we have the case-studies for lots of men. Charismatic/narcissistic leaders tend to be men and it is not just because of some texts from Paul about women in leadership.

  4. I have been hitting my head against a brick wall trying to make english society aware of a social and moral outrage. I refer to the care crisis and the need for a ‘community inspectorate team’. I have tried to lobby Men and Women but have come up against a tidal wave of indifference!
    Time will tell if the appointment of women bishops will help break through this indifference? If there is one out there who will support me I will follow her around with a loud hailer and shout; ” This lady speaks for God!” (Someone may try exorcism). I think in the final end its this country that is the problem, oh what I give for some of that 1960’s generosity to come back. “All you need is Love” and I’m sticking to it!

    Peace & Love chris

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