The Anglican Church has recently been completing the crossing of the final hurdles before women in England are permitted to become bishops in England. A female bishop could be in post as soon as next year. But in noting the historic events taking place at General Synod today (Monday), I am immediately led back to some reading I did some weeks ago about the depths of misogyny that is practised by most religions not least Christianity.
At the time when women were first ordained in the Church of England in the early 90s, I was asked to speak to a group of sixth formers in a girl’s private school on the issue. At that time the prominent opponents of female ordination were the Anglo-Catholic party in the Anglican Church and I spoke about their reasons for opposing it. I thought I was being perceptive in focusing on the issues around impurity and the uncleanness of women to perform sacred acts, like celebrating the eucharist, while ritually unclean. This sense of the unclean is what also lies behind the so-called ‘churching of women’. In the past women who had had children could only re-enter society after they had been to church to be ‘churched’ or purified. It was quite clear that the origins of this ceremony reached back to the Old Testament, and the ideas there and taboos surrounding the uncleanness of women after they had had a child. These visceral feelings about the nature of women’s bodies and its functions were presented alongside the rather tired arguments about how Jesus only chose men as his disciples. More recently I have discerned still deeper levels of hatred against women which lies behind the opposition to women priests and, by extension, to the notion of women bishops.
One strand of opposition to the ministry of women as priests and bishops is held by conservative evangelicals. This resistance is not universal among evangelicals but is expressed forcibly a strand of evangelical theology represented in the UK by a group called Reform. The Diocese of Sydney in Australia is a whole diocese that has set itself apart from the mainstream of Anglican church life by declaring that it will not ordain women to the priesthood nor receive the ministry of women ordained elsewhere to practise as a priest. A woman bishop from New Zealand was only allowed to preach in the Sydney diocese by being robed as a deacon. This solid opposition to the ministry of women priests is something that needs to be explored. What possible reasons are there that lie behind this implacable opposition to the idea of women exercising a priestly ministry?
It is reading the arguments put forward by the representatives of the Diocese of Sydney over a number of decades that allows us to get the flavour of the argument put up by this strand of conservative evangelicalism. Elsewhere in the Anglican world, the arguments against the ordination of women is not allowed to be the dominant voice in the discussion. It could almost be said that the case against women’s ordination is a lost cause among evangelicals, even though there remain strongholds of resistance in every Anglican country. In every presentation of the evangelical case against women being ordained, we hear the argument about ‘headship’. From a number of texts, mainly in Paul but also from Genesis, the argument was put forward that God’s will, as revealed in Holy Scripture was against the ordination of women. Headship in both church and family belongs to men. This is a fundamental truth revealed by God. In a revealing interview given by Peter Jensen when newly appointed a Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, he indicated that he would be more concerned about a Rector who supported the ordination of women than he would about one who questioned the nature of the resurrection. Whatever Peter Jensen meant to say in this comment, it is clear that his version of Protestant Christianity puts the opposition to women’s ordination very high up on the agenda of the important marks of a ‘true believer’.
What does this inordinate opposition to the ordination of women actually say to us? We had cause in a previous blog to claim that the opposition to gay marriage had more to do with politics and psychology than with theology. The opposition to women having authority of any kind over men could also be seen as a political struggle tinged with deep psychological roots. What do we have here? What I believe we find in this theological position is nothing less than a theologically flavoured misogyny. Hatred of women by men can come from many sources, but it is a truism that that throughout history men have found it necessary to dominate and control women. The feminist literature has explored the extent and breadth of this warfare against the female sex. In summary the female voice has been suppressed or ignored, her sexuality tightly controlled and her rights to dispose of her property as she thinks fit severely limited. It is clear that men traditionally have found the ways of the feminine deeply unsettling and their need to control what they cannot understand has been overwhelming. The traditional patriarchal societies of the past evoke a strong affection from evangelical thinkers. They appear, through rose-tinted spectacles, to be havens of order and godliness where women knew their place in society under the total dominance of men. It is perhaps no coincidence that that two consecutive principals of Moore College in Sydney, from where the anti-women theology receives so much support, were both experts in Reformation history. The period of the Reformation, to judge from comments of Luther, Calvin and John Knox, was a period that allowed women little power or influence. They too seized on stories of the failings of Eve and God’s will for the headship of man from Paul with great alacrity.
The ordination of women as priests and now as bishops may create problems for the Anglican church as it loses its relationships with the Catholic church and the Orthodox. It does however represent a victory over a rather seedy piece of theologising that passes for biblical theology. We in the Anglican church have not been taken in by this attempt to pass off misogyny as good or even adequate theological reasoning. The misogyny of certain Christian groups has caused untold suffering to many, and its final defeat in our church is a cause for celebration and thankfulness.