The Heavy Burden of Patience: An Examination of Women and Traditionalist Bishops in the Church of England
You can also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.
If you haven't been following news coming out of the Church of England, you've been missing out on some fairly controversial events. Recently, Bishop Libby Lane has become the first female bishop in the Church of England. As a Christian feminist, I am inclined to see this as a victory. In another place in the world, another tier of church leadership has opened up to women, which I think can only contribute to a view that regards women as whole, unique, capable people. It was not so heartening to read about the concessions made for Traditionalists (a label applied, in this controversy, to those in the Church of England who do not believe in women's ordination). During the recent consecration of Bishop Philip North, bishops who have not ordained women (and obviously, who are not women themselves) were asked not to lay hands on him as an act of “gracious restraint.” Typically, all bishops present would lay hands on the new bishop. I believe the arrangement at North's consecration makes a clear statement from the traditionalists about the invalidity of women's ministry. It also fractures the line of bishops within the Church of England—creating one that is free from women and from those who ordain women.
My housemate Ed Watson posted last week about his views on this consecration. Though Ed staunchly disagrees with the views of Bishop North and is himself a supporter of women's ordination, he believes North's consecration will ultimately be for the good, in that it respects the reality that North reflects the views of a significant minority in the Church of England and that it continues to allow for encounter between Traditionalists and the majority of the church. Many others have commented on these issues with a focus on ecclesiology and church polity.
Allowing for Emotion and Experience in our Discourse
While these arguments are important, this is not the angle I want to take when discussing these issues.
First, I want to consider my initial reaction when first reading an article about these events: complete frustration. To me, the arrangement seemed to undermine the place at the table Bishop Libby Lane had just been given, disrespecting her, female clergy, and consequently women as a whole. It appeared as if the Church of England was still clinging to institutional misogyny of the past, despite making this step forward. I admit I may have ranted a little bit. Perhaps the intensity of my own emotional response can be linked to times in my own life where I have felt undermined in Christian settings because I'm woman, whether it was someone blatantly telling me that a husband would one day have to be my spiritual leader (if I were to marry) or that I was unfit for leadership because I was a woman or an attitude of condescension in an argument that I sensed stemmed from a man's view of my gender. Perhaps, some part of my subconscious recalls the fact that, even after leaving Roman Catholicism and accepting women's ordination theologically, I did not initially have the boldness to imagine myself a minister or a theology professor, but first allowed myself to imagine being married to a man in those professions.
It would be easy for me to write off these emotions and my own personal experience to get to what one might consider the meaty content of this debate—but this inclination is one that I think we could possibly label as androcentric. Many feminists have pointed out that the ranking of objectivity and rationality over subjectivity and emotion is a prizing of what we, as society, consider masculine. Some feminists challenge us to lend more respect to emotion and personal experience in our conversations as a society. I believe it is a feminist act to assert that women's emotions and experiences matter.
It can also be a subversive theological choice. As it says in the book Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart, “Actually placing what we feel and experience in our everyday lives at the heart of how we begin to understand God is a reversal of traditional theological method. This 'theology from below' makes sense in an incarnational religion” (p. 39). They go on to posit that “objectivity enables us to have elaborate theories which 'make sense' but are often devastating, while embodied thinking can never do this as we cannot detach ourselves from how our decisions 'feel', what their lived consequences will be” (p. 40-41).
This impulse to include emotion and experience in my response is especially important in terms of this particular debate. In some ways, the compromise reached by the Church of England to accommodate its Traditionalist wing makes sense. Proponents may feel as if they are only asking people to be reasonable, level-headed, practical—to set aside hurt feelings for the greater good of the Church and the Gospel. Instead of setting these feelings of frustration aside (feelings I admit that I have, but of course that I cannot generalize for all women, and feelings that I am only having as an outsider to this particular branch of the church), I am paying attention to them. They alert me to the deeper problem: the church's tendency to disproportionately call the marginalized and oppressed to such sacrifice, often to the harm of those groups. In this case, I am considering women a marginalized group. Women have long been subject to, and continue to be subject to, many forms of oppression, though to varying degrees depending on other factors such as race, education, and socioeconomic status. Particularly in terms of positions of church leadership, women can fairly be called a marginalized group
Beyond Suffering Love: Looking to Feminist Theology for New Insights
The problem, of course, is that these requests are backed up by solid Christian principles, such as love, giving of one's self, carrying one's cross, patience as a fruit of the spirit, etc. What do we do, then, when good Christian principles seem to encourage the marginalized to stay silent or accept a place that regards them as lesser? When the feelings and experiences of those who have been marginalized seem to come in contradiction with these principles? In cases such as these, I believe we need to take a more critical look what our tradition is saying, see if it requires new analysis, and look to other aspects of our tradition that might speak to our circumstances. Many feminist theologians have done just that, particularly over concerns that Christianity's glorification of redemptive suffering traps women in abusive circumstances.
I recently picked up a book called Women's Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology, edited by Teresa Elwes. Though, in spots, this book from 1992 showed its age, it also contained much that I found inspiring, including an essay titled “Feminism and Christian Ethics” by Linda Woodhead. This essay did a great job of tackling the romanticized notions of suffering love that can be popular in Christian circles. The author legitimatizes self-love, the desire for mutuality in love, and the link between love and happiness through an examination of the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“What people want when they love one another is their own happiness and the happiness of the other as part of the same happiness,” Woodhead writes (p. 69). “If it is a legitimate Christian aim to seek the happiness of the other, then it must also be legitimate to accept with gratitude the happiness that others seek to bring me” (p. 69). This perspective is a corrective to the “elevation of suffering into a goal of the Christian life” (p. 70).
“Suffering love has too often been a 'virtue' imposed by men upon women, a 'virtue' whose destructive consequences are only really known by the latter,” Woodhead continues to say, on page 70. She asserts, “If the world were as God intended—if the Kingdom were fully realised—the bond between suffering and love would be broken, whereas that between happiness and love would remain” (p. 71).
I believe encouragement to accept these remnants of institutional equality is asking women to engage in this “suffering love” for the church. Woodhead's understanding of love challenges such a call.
I also see this sort of love challenged through prayer at Christ Church, where we often recite the Magnificat. I am struck, almost every time, by this line from Mary:“He that is mighty hath magnified me.” This proclamation stands in stark contrast to messages hyper-focused on diminishment of the self that we often hear from our pulpits. Some might argue that this should be read as exceptional. Mary is “blessed among women,” after all--a special case. There is also the choice, however, to take this as potentially normative. God is in the humbling business, but God is also in the uplifting business—the magnifying business for the poor, the oppressed, and dare I say, for women.
As Lois Malcolm writes in her essay “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists,” published in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives, "The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner. Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society had seen as insignificant and giving her a new status (as an exemplar of faith alongside Abraham, Job, and Esther) as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign (as a prophetic witness alongside the prophets of old)...Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life, Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (p. 172).
With this in mind, I turn back to Woodhead for a moment. In her essay, she writes that, “To love is not to deny that I am a valuable and irreplaceable individual, it is to acknowledge that you are too” (p. 78). This is a principle that I see reflected in the Magnificat and elsewhere throughout the Scriptures. God is the one declaring worth upon those who others might be tempted to think of as worthless! This can be seen in the Hebrew Bible in, for instance, God's repeated instructions to care for the poor and to welcome the stranger. This can be seen in the actions of Jesus who eats and drinks with those who have bad reputations, who tells a story in which a Samaritan plays the hero, who tells a criminal that they will be together in paradise, and who ultimately lives and dies for each and every one of us. Sure, God does not want us to have an overblown sense of our own value... but I believe God does want us to have a sense that we do have value.
Applications to Circumstances in the Church of England
Now, how does all of this apply to the consecrations of Bishop Libby Lane or Bishop Philip North? My position against the details of North's consecration stems from my conception of my value. For me, seeing that I have value is not just knowing that I am loved by God. It is recognizing myself as being more expansive than the gender stereotypes and limitations that someone might want to place on my life. It is recognizing that I am not inferior because I am a woman—no matter how much secular society might say so, no matter how much church tradition might say so. It is recognizing that I have the Holy Spirit and can be spoken through by this Spirit just as a man can—with just as much validity and just as much ferocity. Seeing that I have value is knowing that I am loved by God and loving myself, loving who I am as a woman, and loving other women. Because of these convictions, my own personal ethics as a Christian include asserting my own value and the value of other women, rather than always having to take on the self-sacrificial or cooperative role with those who demean women's value.
Some might disagree that the arrangement at Bishop North's consecration undermines the value of women. I would suggest it does. Bishop North himself has said that his consecration is a sign that “the Church has stated afresh its commitment to enabling all traditions to flourish within its life and structures”. This is in keeping with what the Church of England itself says in its five guiding principles regarding women bishops. Principle 4 states, “Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures;” Principle 5 states that, “Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England” North's consecration can be read as symbolic of a commitment from the Church of England to help a tradition thrive that is defined, in part, by the exclusion of women from its leadership.
The roots of that tradition's beliefs, in historical church practice and a particular interpretation of Scripture, should not protect those beliefs from accusations of sexism. A theological backing for a prejudiced belief does not make that belief any less prejudiced—even if it may mean that belief fairly well-intentioned. I think this is something we are usually more comfortable admitting when looking backwards instead of looking at contemporary, contentious issues. Proponents of slavery, for instance, often found theological and biblical justifications for this degrading, dehumanizing system. Of course, abolitionists found their inspiration in Scripture and faith as well. I believe there are issues where we are tasked with making interpretive choices—where the Biblical text and church tradition can either be a supporting buttress for a harmful hierarchy or can be a battering ram to take those hierarchies down, depending on where we choose to look and to what we give precedence. Clearly, the Anglican tradition (even the Anglo-Catholic tradition) includes the resources needed to challenge male headship in the church. To choose to look away from such resources and towards the belief that God would not choose to call women for the work of leadership is a choice that implies some sort of insufficiency in women. I would argue that sexism that is grounded in theology is some of the most harmful sexism that women can face, in that they are not only being told that men believe they are inferior but that their Creator believes so as well (even if this belief of inferiority is not presented as such, but masked by claims of men and women's different roles).
Ultimately, though, my concern is not with Bishop North as an individual. I believe this misses the point. Rather, I am asking: is the precedent of asking for “gracious restraint” from bishops who are women or ordain women, thus creating a separate line of traditionalist Bishops, creating a sinful system? Perhaps an even better question might be: is this creating a system that conflicts with the liberating spirit that should be an outpouring of the Church? In one of my favorite passages from the Bible, Jesus, referencing Isaiah, says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV). ” I believe the Church, at its best, should be acting in accordance with this spirit. Does it fit this spirit to, in practicality, create two lines of Bishops, one of which is for the express purpose of keeping out women and those who support their ministry? My answer would be a resounding no.
I admit that this arrangement may have been a political necessity in order to allow for the advancement of female clergy to bishop positions. I am not well-versed enough in the happenings of the Church of England to make any such claim definitely. If that is so, though, it is not something to be celebrated or given as a positive example of unity in spite of differences. We should acknowledge and grieve this as an accommodation at the expense of female clergy and bishops, who are allowed ordination and consecration but kept out of an institutionally sanctioned Boys' Club. This is an accommodation at the expense of girls and women who are receiving these mixed messages about how they are viewed by the church and by God.
Surely, acts towards women which are much more heinous happen throughout the world and throughout the Christian church. This may seem, to many, like a small-scale issue. Nevertheless, practices that only slightly chip away at the idea of women's value should not be given a free pass once they are identified as such. Such slow, steady chipping comes at women from all directions and can lead to a tremendous erosion of the self and self-worth. I pray that such chipping will stop coming from the direction of the church, the body of people with whom we are supposed to encounter the liberating love of God.