The Fundamental Thing About Women That Means They CANNOT Be Bishops

by , under Church, Emerging Church, Philosophy, Theology

I’ve been following the discussions that have been going on in the Church of England recently over the issue of whether women should be able to be bishops. It appears that the answer is going to be ‘no’. Or, at least, ‘not yet.’

What I’ve not quite been able to tease out is precisely why. I’ve read through the C of E’s 2004 paper on the issue – available here as a PDF – and, though it sets out three lines of argument: Scripture, tradition and reason (see page 232), it concludes that each of these can be used either to support or refute the issue.

Today I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast on John Rawls’ theory of justice. In it, Jonathan Wolff outlines a thought experiment of Rawls’. Imagine two people are discussing what the fairest taxation system was. One might imagine that a richer person would argue for a lower tax burden, and a poorer person for a higher one. Rawls suggests that the fairest taxation system would come out of an argument between these people if they had no idea of their own wealth position. What type of taxation system would you like if you did not know if you were rich or poor? Extending this principle more widely, as Rawls puts it: people disagree about justice because they are biased by their own interests. The discussion in the podcast then brings up another example: what would your attitudes to racial discrimination be if you had no idea what race you were? It is the blind who perhaps have the best view on race.

Listening to this made think about the women bishops issue. Imagine being able to meet a person, talk to them, see them lead and minister, pray and preach – all without knowing what gender they were. Given that women can do all of these things at least to an equal degree as male bishops, and that we could theoretically follow a competent person around who could do the job of bishop in a godly way without knowing their gender, the question then becomes: what is the fundamental thing about being a woman that means they cannot take on the role? The CofE has already concluded that the arguments from Scripture, tradition and reason can be used both ways, so I feel that it is really for those who would want to deny women the right to be appointed to explain what it is about them that bars them.

Is it simply chromosomes? Being a woman, or a man, is part of our ontology. As a man I can act like a woman – I can change my behaviours to be more womanly, but I cannot become one. Or can I? Issues of gender are not quite as straightforward as we might think – as the case of the South African runner Caster Semenya, who has undergone a gender test to try to work out if she really is female. But even if we leave these gender spectrum issues aside, I want to know what it is in a woman’s woman-ness that bars her from being a bishop. It’s simply not good enough to say ‘the bibles tells us.’ Why? Well put a hat on and we’ll go stone some people and discuss it.

What I want to hear from those who think women cannot take on the role is a precise reason why. And I’ve yet to hear one that deals with the ontological question. For me, that boils it down to plain sexism.


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  1. Marika

    One of the things that bothers me about the discussion of gender, though, is that it feels like it’s impossible to identify any ontological difference between men and women, yet at the same time it feels (to me at least) unsatisfying to say that there isn’t any difference, or that women are maybe generally a bit more likely to do or be X than men, but it’s all on a sliding scale. I wonder if the insistence on the maleness of leadership is, to some extent, just the attempt to assert that there really IS a difference, and if you can’t work out what it is ontologically you can at least identify it in roles.

  2. KB

    I think that’s a good point.

    One of the things that I find frustrating about the roles argument though is that it – in a priestly sense – lacks much backbone. One could possibly make an argument as to why women shouldn’t have worked in Victorian mines, as they don’t generally have the same physical strength as men – although this is clearly not always true – but what is it in the priestly role that women might not be able to do?

  3. Marika

    That reminds me of Zizek, actually: doesn’t he say somewhere that to justify the traditional prohibition on extramarital sex on the grounds that, say, it means that the sex you do eventually have is better sex, misses the point: that what we want is an absolute prohibition. Might it be the same with this debate, that in a society where gender is slippery and the roles of men and women undefined, what people who argue against women priests want is Law: simply the assertion that women cannot be priests because that’s the way it is?

  4. joe

    Seems to me it isn’t so hard to understand – people read the Old Testament, where all the important jobs, including the priestly roles, were done by men.

    Then the men, having experienced many years of being in a power position suggest that this must be the Way of Things and point to the OT as proof.

    What everyone fails to discuss is not whether gays and/or women can be priests but whether there is any legitimacy in a priestly position in church. If we want to continue using OT language, we can’t be so surprised when people want to take on the other trappings of it.

  5. Malcolm

    I’m not sure why you think the CoE is having a current debate about the legitimacy of women bishops. They decided in 2005 that women can be bishops, and will be. The recent Synod was actually discussing the question of how women will be made bishops, and especially the question of how to look after those people who don’t want them. All in all, a rather more minor debate about technicalities – the fundamental question was settled already.

  6. Betty

    I can’t believe we’re still talking about this and not doing it….boring snoring….we’re all made in the image of God…love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as your love yourself…life is short…listen….