Monday, 17 October 2011

The venomous theology of taint

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above: But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends';
There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah!
Give me an ounce of civet,
good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination:
King Lear (IV, vi)

Very few pieces that I have read convey the blind irrationality and fear that lies at the root of  true misogyny  as this evocative passage from King Lear. We all know that this kind of fear that women might contaminate and infect existed throughout history and is still alive and kicking in some parts of the world. Perhaps we don't quite expect to find it in the Church of England?
Just recently I received the account below; it was written by a woman who attended the same meeting described in the recent post on the debate on women bishops and describes the views expressed as "bile" and as "venomous". I am not going to name the diocese, but it occurs to me that it must have been quite some meeting! It reads as follows: 
     "I recently attended my first Deanery Synod. My expectations were not high; I anticipated a slightly dull evening with a serious, if somewhat worthy, discussion of the agenda items. The main issue was the legislation for the ordination of women bishops.

     My expectations were totally confounded; it was far from a dull meeting. I witnessed a shocking display of misogyny that would have led to disciplinary action being taken in any of the areas that I have worked in. There was a palpable sense of outrage expressed by one of the speakers at the temerity of women in the Church. His forcibly expressed view that the ordination of women transmitted a contagion that was irreversible and rendered those involved with their ordination unfit for ministering to, or in conjunction with, those opposed to women priests was offensive. That these views were allowed to pass unchallenged compounded the offence, and it made matters worse that those attempting to counter this bile were effectively silenced.
            There was much talk of the pain and hurt felt by the opponents of women priests and their desire for an honoured place within the Church but the hurt and distress felt by women exposed to such venomous views was not mentioned."
             Since the meeting I have been assured by a retired clergyman that my concerns regarding the role of women in our diocese are unfounded as our bishop is very tolerant of women. I, and most other women I have spoken to, do not want to be tolerated; we want to be valued and encouraged in the same way that our male counterparts are.

I don't want to comment too much on the specifics of the above, it was not a meeting I attended and it was not my experience, but it does leave me disturbed that, in the midst of what has been an overwhelming groundswell of support for women bishops, views have been expressed in such a manner to have left some women feeling shocked, offended, unvalued, spoken about as unclean.  It reminded me of the concerns that menstruating women would transfer taint to the sacrament when women were first ordained. One of the most tragic aspects of all of this is that is so contrary to the gospels, in which Christ was touched by and touched  all manner of women with a wonderful disregard for the fact that such association would have probably been regarded as rendering  him constantly ritually unclean.
I do understand those who wish to find an "honoured place" for those opposed to the ministry of women, but honouring others cuts both ways. Some of the underlying theologies of those opposed are not sound, not rational, not humane and not bibilical. It is simply not acceptable to describe others in a way that shows contempt, disgust or revulsion for who they are, and such views should be challenged.


  1. I was told of a woman priest who, on being asked by her incumbent to inform him when she was menstruating, so that he could preside to avoid any uncleanness, responded by saying that she would do so if he informed her when he had nocturnal emissions so that she could return the favour!

  2. Well, quite! Men really do also have bodily functions.
    Funnily enough the only time I remember hearing such absurdly sexist views was about twenty years ago and they were expressed by a fairly elderly woman. She was a member of my dad's parish and she was complaining that she could never accept a woman priest, because "If she got pregnant, you'd know what she'd been up to and you'd lose all respect for her." I thought at the time how illogical it was since presumably if the vicar's wife got pregnant you'd know what he'd got up to? (unless you automatically assumed it must have been the milkman...) I think that's called double standards?

  3. I would never wish to receive communion from a priest who sits on a toilet.

  4. Heartbreaking isn't it? And so disturbingly unbiblical....

  5. Yes! Nice to see you back, and a new blog?

  6. I must admit that it's still the women who support all of this who surprise me most. The ones who nod sagely at the "serious" theological obstacles to women priests, although they would probably not be so viscious in their language and would genuinely not see their views as anti-women.

    At least the aggressive louts are clearly seen for what they are. The others whose opposition is supposedly purely rational are much harder to deal with.

  7. You raise a very interesting point here – and one of the biggest gripes I have with religion (and politics for that matter – and the two go hand in hand for many...).

    I think it is an issue bound up with the nasty side-effect of much ‘religion’ – we believe it is about ‘the other’, we tell ourselves at its purest it is ‘selfless’; but for many it is about ‘ME’ ‘I’ ‘ego’.

    Hence why other people’s views that are in opposition to our own seem such a ‘personal’ affront. e.g. I believe there are good theological grounds for a mitigated acceptance of same sex partnerships within the Church. However, I also believe that those who cannot see this and have, in good faith thought and prayed about this issue and maintain a ‘conservative view’ deserve as much respect as someone who holds liberal views. All I ask is that conservative views about sexuality are proportionate and that a conservative stance is advocated in other areas. As we know some Christian Right Wing web and lobbying sites manage one in four posts on homosexuality, yet tell us it is a subject that affects one in a hundred people (and in a Bible of 20,000 verses only four or so ambiguous verses exist that may or may not pertain to homosexuality – ‘nuf said!) Moreover such ‘reporting’ often contains sneers and finger pointing that in my humble opinion seem to be completely contrary to what Jesus asks of us. So much for Biblical orthodoxy on the part of some of our brethren.

    People use ‘attitudes to issues’ as badges of tribal and factional identity – and as a means of assuaging their own fears and grievances. When this desire becomes disproportionate – i.e. when it results in hatred and maligning those with ‘opposite views’ then it is no longer just about party politics, but is about the self wanting to feel better about the self and a pathological desire to feel superior to others. In short it is about magnifying the self – often at the expense of others. At its most dangerous, there is an attempt to take away the humanity of the opponent - e.g. a woman becoming a source of contagion - or homosexuals for that matter (Matt 15:11 and all... is forgotten).

    I have friends who are anti-women priests (never mind bishops!) – we agree to disagree (actually I have never been a big fan of women priests myself – but once the Church decided to ordain women to the priesthood, I accepted it and moved on). I have friends who believe celibacy is the only way for gay Christians (and some of these ARE gay Christians) – again I fully accept and respect their position. Alas, the problems come when a difference of opinion becomes an excuse for aggression and worse... And this works both ways – some ‘pro women’s ministry’ or pro-same-sex marriage can be pretty nasty pieces of work too! As a social work student I remember a fellow student getting very snotty with me when I told her I wasn’t in favour of women priests (this was before women’s ordination in England) – I casually pointed out that she was a self proclaimed atheist, so why the f**k was she bothered!?

    I do know what the way forward is – a return to local Christian communities? Ditch the established Church – I’m hovering around the Quakers at present, though the fact there is no choral tradition puts me off... Again, self interest always rots and spoils... As you know I like to show off my voice!

    Peter Denshaw

  8. Thanks Peter, some interesting points. It can be difficult to know how to respond to those who hold different views in a way that still has some Christian grace. There are points at which views expressed fall into the category of "completely unacceptable" though (when disgust, contempt, hatred, violence is expressed), I do think we must speak out in those cases.
    I attend a Quaker meeting once a month myself and do find it beneficial. I am sure Quakers also have their feet of clay though - and, yes, no singing, and as an acquaintance from a rather evangelical perspective said to me disapprovingly - " If it is all silent,where do they get their teaching from?" But that might be the stuff of another post!

  9. That said, there are several blogs I happily leave vicious comments – tho’ these tend to be the ones that have a disproportionate interest in the subject of other people’s lives – homosexuality, abortion and (to a lesser degree) evolution are all subjects that receive a disproportionate interest by some bloggers and commentators. As I once said on my own blog, these are subjects that give a semblance of ‘high’ moral standards, at very little personal cost for most people: only a tiny minority of the population are gay or are in the terrible dilemma of whether to or not to have an abortion and as so few people understand evolution and whether you believe it or not makes little impact on your daily life. It is why, in my opinion, these topics have become such an obsession with a certain flavour of conservative Christian – and a ‘badge’ of belonging to certain worldview. If I saw as much energy and interest given to other moral dilemmas, those that have a personal cost, I might be more sympathetic to those conservatives who seem so interested in the morality and personal lives of others!

    Women’s ordination is a similar issue – personally I believe men and women do have different and complimentary roles in The Body of Christ and just wanting to do what men do, isn’t necessarily the ‘Christian’ or theological answer to this difficult question. In a similar vein, it is why I am not very keen on the idea of gay-marriage (despite living in a committed same-sex relationship). Why ape heterosexuals?

    Yet, I am also mindful to respect other people’s opinions, as long as they are not disproportionate or seen as ‘the only way’. Clearly there is room in the church for different expressions of belief and if someone finds themselves in a church that is anti-women’s ordination and they are pro then the solution is to move to one that is; and vice versa.

    Do you know there is such a thing as a non-Christian Quaker? Odd indeed? Where do you go, the meeting hall off Albert Sq? I used to go there sometimes at lunchtime when I was an undergrad in Manchester.

    I seem to be spending a lot of time at the local RC Church where I live now. I approached the local priest as part of my research and he was so helpful (much more so than some other denominations!) and the church is so nice, I felt very much at home. As I said to Stuart, at E-Church, perhaps I am experiencing the same journey as he is... But I can’t really see myself Poping and Crossing the Tiber. I am an Anglican through and through – and proud of it.

  10. Hi, no I don't go to Albert Sq. My nearest city is Manchester - I don't live there! [I'll email you:)]
    There is room in the church for different expressions of belief - and that can be healthy- this issue of women bishops is very difficult though because of the practical problems involved. For example, those who seek "sacramental assurance" will not only not accept a woman bishop, they will also not accept a man who has been ordained by a woman bishop, or a man ordained by a man ordained by a woman bishop - ad infinitum. They might end up needing priests to be able to prove a "pure blood" pedigree. It is a bit like the Pope and the unbroken line of apostolic succession - except wasn't there a female Pope at one point? So, it is broken (hmmmmm....)
    There is also the problem of a woman bishop in a diocese where there are priests who do not accept her authority and are not willing to accept delegated authority from a male bishop ( i.e a male bishops who tells them to do what she said) but want a male bishop with separate jurisdiction - (separate Episcopal oversight) - something which is going to be undermining of the authority of the woman bishop concerned and lead to potential conflict over just who is in charge of a diocese.
    And that's not even to start on the problem of what would happen if there was a woman Archbishop! Yet Synod has voted overwhelmingly for women bishops and the C of E is possibly sailing close to the wind in terms of equality legislation if it sets up too many caveats (or so I understand) or if the admission of women to the Episcopate does not proceed.
    I am glad you have found an RC church you like. I have to say I could never be an RC, I just couldn't accept the idea of the Pope as the representative of Christ on earth. I'm not keen altogether on the idea of hierachies or of people being revered on the basis that they are a priest or bishop. The Pope is just another punter in my view.
    Phew - bit of a rant there...

  11. Peter,
    this all sounds very reasonable and fair and moderate.
    And, clearly, a disestablished church with independent local communities is the only way to make it happen.

    But if we go back to the real world for the moment, I believe that a lot of the vicious language is a result of extreme frustration with the status quo. And to condemn it is one thing, to deal with it another. Unless we understand that the viciousness of the debate is a symptom, not the actual cause, we're not being very constructive if we just tut-tut in a superior way from the sidelines.

    The fact is that these are issues you cannot just have theoretical ideas about that permit a live and let live. It's not as if we were discussing the nature of Christ, transubstantiation or the virgin birth.
    Although the number may be small, gay people ARE the ones who are bearing the cost of such a reasonable approach. And I wouldn't quite say that women are a minority that can be sidelined in a reasonable compromise on women bishops among the chaps.

    Deep down, this is about what kind of community we want to be and of how we bring that about. Now, in the actual existing structure of our church, not in the small semi-external groups many of us feel pushed into.

    The other question is a more moral than a practical one. There is a genuine growth of moral awareness in human society. A topic, any topic, that was once uncontested is suddenly seen as inacceptable by a small minority of people. They are laughed at, ignored, criticised, demonised…. but the awareness of injustice slowly grows in society. Then there is a time where both views, pro whatever situation is being discussed and anti have equal moral weighting. And then the balance tips and the anti-view is seen as increasingly immoral and, ultimately, as repugnant as the pro-view was many years earlier.
    Slavery is a perfect example of this, as is racism and women’s equality. And no-one would argue that there should be safe pockets where people can still keep slaves or that there should be church communities that are allowed to put “no blacks” signs up.
    The current hot button issues are lgbt rights, the status of children and animal rights. I suspect a future issue will be the “moral” status of the environment.

    In the lgbt debate we’re tipping the balance and what you politely call a conservative view is becoming to be seen as genuinely immoral and deeply repugnant and uneducated, ignoring, as it does, science, psychology and the lived and living reality of gay people.

    Truth is that a precarious “live and let live” on this issue can only ever be a short term solution that doesn’t really settle anything properly.
    And while it is a short term solution, the actual costs are born by real people whose lives are being diminished – in the name of Christ.

    What do you think a genuine answer to this could look like?

  12. Anonymous said, 'personally I believe men and women do have different and complimentary roles in The Body of Christ and just wanting to do what men do, isn’t necessarily the ‘Christian’ or theological answer to this difficult question.'

    I think he/she meant 'complementary' roles, though I'm always happy to accept compliments!
    But he/she misunderstands the issue. The ordination of women is not about women 'just wanting to do what men do'. It's about God calling people to roles they are not permitted by others to take on. A frustrated vocation is difficult for the person called and gifted for something they are not allowed to do, and a great loss to those who should have benefited from their service. The whole thing is a tragedy for the church, which becomes weakened and unbalanced.

    Iffy Vicar

  13. Can't believe it - the world I was just asked to type in was 'mates'!

    Iffy Vicar

  14. Suem

    Thanks for this. There has been much investigation and much written by RC theologians and Canon Law experts on the subject of apostolic succession and the Anglican claim that the Anglican Church was and remains a viable contender for full apostolic succession from St Peter (see: for a nice potted example of the RC counter arguments).

    I suppose at its heart, the real issue is whether a woman could be a vehicle or carrier of apostolic charisma. I don’t have time to investigate this issue here, but I suspect the argument is akin to the one that raged in the 18th century concerning Wesley and the ordination of Methodist ministers...? I don’t really know, this is just an educated guess.

    Personally I think once you have accepted that women can be priests, then you have to accept that women can be bishops; it would be illogical to presume otherwise. As with many such arguments, there is a good deal of ‘dark matter’ that - as with dark matter and Einstein’s general theory of relativity – muck up the equations. That is, it is difficult to tease out what is genuine theological objection from reactionary ideals or just plain and simple misogyny. At present a good deal of the objection, to my mind, is biased to the latter than the former...

    Peter Denshaw

  15. As I note above, when comment turns to ‘sneers and finger pointing [then] in my humble opinion seem to be completely contrary to what Jesus asks of us’.

    Peter Denshaw

  16. Peter,
    was this last post a comment on my quetions? If so, I don't really understand.
    If not - I really had hoped for a reply.

  17. Erika

    Thank you for your comment and question. To answer your last question: ‘no’.

    To be frank I couldn’t really tease out any succinct issues/questions in your response to my comment that I could comment upon. My feeling was that words were being put into my mouth (I could be wrong here, but that is what I gleaned from yours and another comment in the above).

    You mention several times that ‘live and let live’ is not the answer... What is the alternative? A totalitarian Church? For centuries new religious movements have grown out of schism – often as a result of rationalisation of the status quo (i.e. ‘the methodical pursuit of efficient relations between means and ends.’ Beckford). Alas there is no one true Church and form of Christianity that will suit everyone. A given religion is always in dialogue and informed and informing a given society. e.g. in the pre-Reformation era Western Christianity existed in a world of feudal hierarchies, where power and knowledge was concentrated among the few – hence a centralised Catholic Church, with a supreme ruler (the Pope). In the 16th century onwards economic power in the form of a literate emerging mercantile class and nascent capitalism resulted in a fracturing of the feudal system – and surprise, surprise also a fracturing of the religious order. In the 18th century there was an epistemological revolution in the form of the Enlightenment, which resulted in greater political awareness and the rights and emphasis of the individual; it is not coincidental that we saw the emergence of Evangelical theologies and movements which likewise emphasised the idea of personal salvation and religious individualism.

    There as has been a questioning of the role of women in the Church for much of its history. St Teresa of Avila bemoans men’s oppression of women; Catherine Booth’s writings on women’s ministry – her arguments have little, if any substantial difference to those used by Anglicans to promote the ordination of women were written over a hundred years before any serious attempt in Synod to allow the ordination of women. In the 20th century (after almost 2,000 years of Christianity) we saw an increasing social and political move for gender equality... And what do we see in the Church? What is driving this change? Christian belief or changes in social attitudes in wider society?

    Now I am not saying there is anything wrong with social attitudes changing Christian attitudes – but to pretend the two aren’t connected is just sheer self-deception. Yet it is evident ew religious movements (such as the ordination of women) are as much the result of changing social attitudes as they are about personal conviction. Schism – a division over difference of opinion – is older than Christianity! Schism will happen simply because as much as you might like everyone to be singing from the same hymnsheet, it will not happen. So what do we do? Live and let live or return to an authoritarian church? And just remember there are many women who do not condone the ordination of women – are they misguided fools, oppressed and lacking the deep insights of the pro-ordination lobby. Or they women who have thought, prayed and come to a position others don’t like?

    Alas there are some nasty souls around, who are misogynistic and hate-filled in the anti-ordination/consecration party (tho’ there are some equally nasty pieces of work in the pro- ordination/consecration party). But there will always be people like this.

    You ask ‘What do you think a genuine answer to this could look like?’ It will be divided – and we just have to accept that because (to quote you) we live in the REAL world. And no matter how nice it would be if everyone believed the same thing and acted decently even towards those who might differ, it ain’t ever going to happen. Egos, prejudice, malice, lack of charity and that all pervasive belief that we are right and others are wrong, will always cloud the picture. This is the real world... QED


  18. Peter,
    thank you.
    Oh, I do think that live and let live is the answer. It's the only answer. In theory.

    My problem comes with "live and enshrine a current situation in stone" when it is already clear that such a compromise will not survive long.

    I have real problems with any single one of the proposed solutions to the women bishops debate.

    No provisions for those who are against women priests seems to be the most consistent response: They have joined a church whose bodies have discerned a new theology, something this church is entitled to do. No other church I know has tied itself in knots to accommodate those who do not agree with its discernment.

    But that approach is also cruel and dismisses people who until now have been faithful members of the CoE. I admire the way the 3 major movements live in genuine side by side in this church and I believe it to be unique. Losing that wonderful example of what a unified body of Christ can look like would be a terrible shame.

    But most conservative people do not trust informal provisions and know that they can be overturned at any time.

    And so we're asked to provide a formal and long lasting demarcation, that is an insult to women bishops who don't have the same authority as their male counterparts, and that enshrines a new concept - a church within a church, that is also completely against the ethos of live and let live we want to preserve.
    And anything that becomes enshrined in canon law is far less likely to change organically in the future as something that just happens to be the status quo at the time.

    And so by enshrining provisions we almost guarantee that the moral movement towards a full equality of women priests and bishops
    will not develop, or at least will develop much more slowly than it would otherwise.

    There's a lot at stake for everybody. I can understand the fear on both sides and I can understand the aggression that is rooted in fear.

    That's why I don't find it helpful to just ask people to play nicely.

    So I ask again - what do you think the actual solution at this moment should be? My personal answer to this would always have been to make solid provisions for existing traditionalists but to make sure that new ordinands understand and accept that their church ordains women priests and has women bishops.
    That does not seem to form part of the debate. To me, it would still be the only real solution.

  19. Erica

    I dunno...


  20. Sorry this is so long after your post, but just wanted to say that since I actually became a regular attender of Quakers I have found far more teaching (and more challenging) than I ever met in the C of E. Quakers are not just about silent waiting on God, though that is the core of their faith. Would love to see you post on this again.

  21. Hi Amanda and welcome.
    I attend a Quaker meeting once a month and I will definitely be posting on it soon. I'd love to hear your experiences.

  22. That sounds really interesting, I'd like to know more.

    Of course the teaching you get in the CofE depends very much where you are - every parish is different. And there are opportunities like lay training and education courses. But, sadly, very little on prayer & contemplation. Sometimes I think the CofE is set up to ensure its clergy and laity get no time for contemplation!

    Iffy Vicar