I was shocked to hear the news that women will not be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England. I had no idea that they were banned in the first place. I had thought that when they were allowed to join the clergy in the first place, that opened up the whole hierarchy. Oh well, it is only the C of E. It is not as if it is anything that important. In fact, I should have realised that if there was a crazy option to take on the subject of gender, the established church was likely to take it.
I only have to look at some of the curious arrangements in the churches in the little bit of the patchwork of the English countryside where I happen to live. The local Catholic priest lives with his wife. He can only do that on the basis of a special dispensation from the Pope. He used to be an Anglican vicar who went over to the Catholics over the issue of women priests. The Catholics were flexible enough to allow married ex-Anglican clergy to sign up even if they were married. Not too far away a former Catholic priest has turned Anglican. He was obliged to make the switch when he fell in love and got married. Not all local clergy have such problems I should point out. The previous vicar in the Church nearest to me was a confirmed bachelor, who was happy to make do with the companionship of a good friend who lived in with him. So that was alright.
The puzzling thing is how all this confusion and muddle over who can and can’t sleep with who arises. It isn’t as if the religiously inclined are particularly stupid or illiberal. In fact in my experience the exact opposite is the case. They all seem to be reasonable, intelligent, more open minded than most and if anything surprisingly well educated. As an atheist I’d love to dismiss them as troglodytes and boneheads, but they simply don’t conform to that picture. So how do they get into such a mess?
I think the answer is to look carefully at the structure of the Synod and the actual voting. It turns out that the vast majority of the clergy voted for women bishops. The problem arose with the lay members. These are apparently local parishioners who are supposed to represent the ordinary worshiper. This is something that they manifestly weren’t doing.
Digging a bit deeper it turns out that a lot of the delegates were affiliated with either conservative traditionalist groups or with a group called Reform that has some kind of weird evangelical version of biblical fundamentalism. So what is going on is something that afflicts a lot of big organisations. In the 1980s the Labour Party had a problem with what was called ‘entryism’. Far left groups, notably Militant, would enter the party to push an extreme agenda. The American Republicans seem to have a similar problem with groups of people from the extreme right at the moment. The way it works is that the democratic procedures of a church or a party tend to allow people who are prepared to commit a lot of time to them to get a disproportionate influence.
Is this a new thing? I doubt it very much. I think it is probably nearly as old as political and religious organisations. Indeed, the recent events at the Synod are probably a good guide to what has gone on in the past. It’s like scientists who look at fossils animals. They only have the bones to work on, so they look at living creatures with similar bones to recreate how the extinct creature lived.
We can do the same with the issue of women bishops. Are the traditionalists really voting to keep the age old practices of the church intact? I’d say they probably are doing exactly the opposite. If you read the gospels, distorted as they are by centuries of manipulation and translation, you can still see that women seemed to play a surprisingly large role in the life of Christ. We can never know for sure, but I think Christ was a radical figure who would probably have been a feminist by the standards of his day. There is evidence that early pastors were women, at a time in the development of Christianity when a pastor was the top job going.
It seems to have changed by the third century and certainly by the fourth. The most famous example of this is the murder of Hypatia. This appears, we don’t sadly have the details, to have been part of a political move by Saint Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria. Christianity was already well established by this time but the nature of the Christianity that would prevail was still up for grabs. The winners were the ones who worked the system. The losers included women, whose role in the church was severely diminished, and has been ever since. I wouldn’t be surprised if the misogynist sections of St Paul’s letter to Timothy would have been inserted at around this time, quite possibly at the instigation of Cyril.
So I think the traditionalists are definitely part of a long tradition. Subverting radical ideas and twisting them to the benefit of the Church itself has been going on for a long time. And it has usually been successful. Religion has ended up being a force for evil more often than a force for good as a result. The radical carpenter from Palestine must be turning in his grave.
The news story
More Church History