Saturday, July 17, 2010

Spot-On Brilliant from Scotland

Why won't men in frocks let women wear the trousers?
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Now let’s see …assorted wars still being waged?

Check. Famine, pestilence and poverty undefeated? Check. Inequalities in life expectancy unresolved? Check. Global warming still rampant? Check.

With that kind of in-tray, what else would the General Synod of the Church of England find to furrow its brow for two days of internecine warfare but that burning issue of the day: women bishops. If God wasn’t so darned busy, she’d doubtless despair. What is it with these men in frocks that they won’t let women wear the ecclesiastical trousers? Heaven knows they spent long enough letting them tiptoe from the kitchen to the pulpit.

By the time some 32 female priests were finally ordained in Bristol in the mid-1990s, 14 were well on the way to retirement and one was about to meet her maker.

Yet lots of the boys in the black stuff were still very unhappy.

Many, many toys were flung from the evangelical wing’s prams. There were schemes for a sort of flying bishop corps who could swoop into dioceses contaminated by female ordination, so that no dissident member of a flock should be deprived that brand of clerical wisdom and pastoral care which can apparently be dispensed uniquely by men.

It wasn’t dressed up as anything so crass as misogyny of course. It was a matter of the highest learned and theological principle. As it should say in the good book: “Aye, right.” And the muttering went on when the numbers of women priests slowly rose until, good grief, there seemed to be hundreds of the besoms. Just as well a huge proportion of them couldn’t actually find paid employment.

But just as you finally get an axe through one stained glass ceiling, as if by magic another one appears above. The monstrous regiment of women priests might have got to first base, but promoted posts?

Forget it.

Female bishops? An outrage too far.

And while the lads were working themselves into a decent lather over this proposition, the newish Pope popped up with a probably repeatable offer. Join the Roman Catholic Church. You know it makes sense. Some did. Some more will. And some have had the nerve to demand severance payments and compensation en route to a faith where women know their place. Or at least their menfolk know their place on their behalf.

Even this week, as the rows raged and the Archbishop of Canterbury ran round the pitch trying to quell the cloggers but seemed disinclined to issue yellow cards,

the forces of clerical darkness were still demanding the right to have their own breed of bishop, not just comfortingly male, but with a clean preaching licence which had no prior convictions ordaining women, or approving anyone else who did.

The far from unspoken fear was of schism and decline. Though, in fact, both are already a fact of life. The Church of England is effectively at war with itself and has been these many years, if not over women

getting ideas above their due station, then over its twin obsession on gay priests. Or, as we say in the lay world, persistent homophobia.

Church at war, and obsessively navel gazing. Dwindling band of the faithful.

Could these two by any chance be related? Neither are women bishops a done and dusted deal. It’s a bit like finding yourself in the qualifying rounds for the Champions League and then clocking you have two more stages to negotiate before you get to play with the big boys. So what they’ve signed up to is a sort of first draft which will bounce around the mini synods for a couple of years and needs to win majority support before it can be debated all over again in 2012.

Perhaps as an additional Olympic event: very high hurdles for dog-collared women. Just in case they manage to get to that finishing line, church law then requires a two-thirds majority from the C of E’s three constituent parts. And if it fails, the women have to start the campaign all over again.

Even if it doesn’t, 2014 is the earliest date for the big pointy hat to ruin its first female blow dry. Make these hurdles a marathon. But we should not be sniggering too loudly from behind the tartan arras. Let us remind ourselves that the Church of Scotland took the best part of 500 years to let women enter the ministry. And that it held fast to an all-male cast list for the Moderator’s role well into the 21st century.

The redoubtable Margaret Forrester was unsuccessful in no fewer than three bids. Mary Levison and Ruth Page also found their names strangely stuck to the bottom of the hat. And when the breakthrough finally came, thanks in no small measure to an all-female shortlist, the Kirk voted in the elder rather than the meenister just five short years ago.

That it has managed one more of the female persuasion since doesn’t make up for years of scarcely veiled prejudice. Or the fact that women ministers, in a country where 52% of the populace is female, still make up less than 20% of the ministerial troops. And don’t let us forget that the General Assembly, too, had its moment of non-glory in 2009 when it expended a ludicrous amount of energy on the appointment of a gay minister.

It’s one thing to be otherworldly; flocks quite like the chap or chapess in the pulpit not to be obsessed with the more trivial earthly pursuits which fascinate the rest of us. But you do want the churches, of whatever stripe, to try to stay in the same century as those they seek to lead into better ways of living.

If I were that all-purpose Martian, landing in the vicinity of the York Synod these past few days, I’d be pretty staggered they thought nothing on this troubled planet mattered more than bishops wearing bras.

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