No Easy Remedy for Church Bigotry
By Jacqueline Small
The Church of England’s decision this week to permit women to become bishops is a welcome change from recent news stories about the contentious relationship between Christian hierarchies and women of faith. With the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints excommunicating Kate Kelly last month because she has advocated for the ordination of Mormon women, and Pope Francis’ joking suggestion that Catholic women have all the power they need as priests’ housekeepers, the Church of England comes across as nearly progressive. Of course this decision is commendable, of course women are called to act as influential leaders in their communities, of course we who are feminists with religious convictions celebrate with our Anglican sisters. But this move, and the centuries that it has taken for the Church to approve it, highlights why it is not enough for Catholic or Mormon women to work simply for the ordination of people of all genders.
The Church of England has had female priests since 1994, with the decision to ordain women passed in 1992 (and a provision passed the following year that allowed parishes to refuse to ordain women), but outside of England, in the United States and Hong Kong, there have Anglican and Episcopalian women priests since the 1970’s. Depending on how you prefer to count, that means there have been women in the priesthood for twenty or forty years, long enough that young Anglicans would have no memory of a time when ordination was exclusively for men. And yet for all this time, women have been barred from the more powerful role of bishop. They have been assumed, on the basis of their sex and gender, to be less well-suited to the task. Sexism, it seems, does not disappear with official acknowledgment that women are capable of doing pastoral work and celebrating sacraments. Furthermore, in these recent decades that the Church of England has had female priests, they have retained a dim view of LGBTIQ people, announcing after the 1998 Lambeth Conference, “in view of the teaching of Scripture, [this Conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage; … [and] cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.” We who are working for women’s ordination in Catholic or Mormon traditions must not lose sight of the fact that being added to the priesthood will not necessarily mean true equality and justice for those who are not male and/or not straight.
Ordaining women does not remove the long-held prejudices that have thrived in, and because of, Christian churches. Instead, allowing them into the hierarchy can be a surprisingly small gesture meant to placate progressive voices, while keeping women out of the more powerful roles, and continuing to uphold oppressive policies. A Church that gives women more institutional power is rewarded for the decisions with badly needed good press and an increase in capable and qualified ministers, but does not have to address the deeper issues of patriarchy in the church: exclusively male language for God, permissive attitudes toward gender-based violence, portrayals of women as temptresses who lead men into sin, and so on. A Church that ordains women or permits them to be bishops is not necessarily a Church that is affirming of LGBTIQ lives, or one that is welcoming for non-white people. The solution to institutional bigotry and prejudice is not a kind of “lean-in feminism” approach, where the women who are the best at Church politics are rewarded with more power. We have to work instead for a Church community that seriously considers the needs and voices of the most oppressed, the least powerful, the people we have hurt the most. We need a more democratic, equal Church, not one that simply allows a small number of women to be included in the hierarchy.
The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, said that the decision to permit female bishops made for a “momentous day… a moment of joy,” but went on to say, “To those who ask ‘what took you so long?’ my answer is that every decision has a cost and there will be those within our body who will be hurting as a result of this decision. Our answer to the hurting should not be ‘get over it’ but rather ‘we will not let go until you have blessed us.’ We move slowly because we move together.” There are many, many people who have been hurting because of discriminatory Church policies, decisions, and mores. It is time that all of us in Christian denominations start looking for better ways to earn their blessing, and to move together with them.
Jacqueline Small is a Master’s student at Princeton Theological Seminary. A recent graduate of Swarthmore College and current intern at the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, Jacqueline is interested in religion’s role in the marginalization of women, as well as its liberative possibilities.