When I was studying theology in the late 1990s, my fellow students included a clique of upper middle class conservative Anglo-Catholics. A major concern for them was their opposition to the ordination of women and their desire to reverse the Church of England’s decision to allow women priests.
On several occasions when I talked with them in the college bar, it was clear that for many of them, opposition to women priests was a natural extension of their general attitude towards women. I recall one occasion when a woman was appointed to be vicar of a nearby church. Several of these individuals were very disappointed; they admired the church’s architecture and were particularly envious of the attached vicarage. They commented that it was “too good for a girlie”. Indeed, the phrase “too good for a girlie” seemed to be one of their favourite expressions.
In public, they insisted “we’re not being sexist” and talked about the apostolic succession.
Several of these men are now Anglican priests. It was them, and people like them, who supporters of equality have spent years trying to appease. Ahead of yesterday’s vote on women bishops, these people were offered alternative pastoral care and episcopal oversight. Yesterday, they spat in the faces of those who sought to accommodate them.
Proposals to allow women bishops in the Church of England were thrown out by General Synod, even though 74% of Synod voted in favour. This is a much higher percentage than the proportion of the UK population that voted for either party in the current government coalition. But the Synod’s system requires a two-thirds majority in each of three “houses” – bishops, clergy and laity. In the House of Laity, only 64% voted in favour.
This issue is not, really, about bishops. It is about the nature of the Christian Church. Do we follow Jesus’ example of challenging gender norms and the early Christian belief that “there is no longer male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3,28)? Or do we resort to sexism based on shoddy theology and an unholy alliance of conservative evangelicals and conservative Anglo-Catholics? (And I hasten to add that there are many Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals who passionately support women bishops).
As I expressed my own sadness and anger on Twitter yesterday evening, I wrote that the vote is another reminder that the future of Christianity lies in grassroots movements, not in denominational institutions. As the comment was retweeted, some replied that the “grassroots” had rejected women bishops, pointing out that it was the House of Laity who had voted against the proposal. I understand their point, but I did not mean to equate “grassroots” with “laity”. There are a number of lay Anglicans in senior positions who are firmly wedded to the social, political and economic establishment. And there are priests who work with people on the margins of society, seeking God’s guidance in prayer and in the community of others, who are not too concerned about institutional identity.
The distinction between grassroots movements and hierarchical institutions is about ways of doing things, not simply about types of people or who has which role within which organisation. Grassroots movements are more fluid, more adaptable, more messy, harder to define. It is not always clear who is in and who is out. Institutions by contrast tend to be hierarchical, or at least have rigid structures, with clearly defined membership. They often operate, at least in part, as if they exist for the purpose of maintaining themselves. My Ekklesia colleague Jonathan Bartley has explored this distinction in more detail in his book Faith and Politics After Christendom.
Of course, messiness of movements extends to their definition. The precise distinction between movements and institutions is not always clear. I accept that many institutions have positive features and make a good contribution to the world. Also, movements have their own faults and, indeed, often turn into institutions.
Nonetheless, history suggests that progressive change in society, politics and religion happens from the ground up, led by movements rather than institutions. I believe that nearly all Christian denominations in Britain contribute positively to society in a number of ways. But they are all institutions. As such, they all – at least occasionally – become more concerned with their own existence and identity than with living out the Gospel. As such, they sometimes allow their most reactionary members to restrain the rest of the ogansiation, for the sake of “unity”. I should make clear that I think this applies to those denominations that are supposedly less hierarchical, such as Quakers and Baptists, as well as to the Church of England and Roman Catholics.
At this point, I must express my thanks to Benny Hazlehurst, an evangelical Church of England priest and a founder of Accepting Evangelicals. Benny reminded me at a crucial moment that Jesus seemed to have little interest in the maintenance of religious institutions, appearing to be more concerned with those outside them. In this spirit, those Christians who reject sexism and homophobia can get on with campaigning for justice in society and demonstrating it in their own churches, not divert energy by trying to accommodate opponents of equality.
I respect the fact that some Christians genuinely believe that they can oppose the ordination of women without regarding women as inferior. In a similar way, some believe they can oppose same-sex relationships without being homophobic. I believe that such people are sorely misguided, but they have integrity. Behind them, however, are people of the sort I remember from Oxford, who are without a doubt sexist and homophobic. For such people, twisted theology and shoddy biblical interpretation are little more than a smokescreen for prejudice.
If any good things come out of this appalling moment at General Synod, perhaps one of them will be the realisation that the appeasement of sexists and homophobes is impractical as well as immoral.
Yes, we should respect those who disagree with us. Yes, we should accept we may be wrong. Yes, we should seek dialogue with those who genuinely want to struggle with the issues together. Yes, we should respect the fact that not everyone with a “conservative” position is motivated by prejudice. This does not mean that we can reach unity with people who have a fundamentally contrary understanding of the Gospel. Let’s not allow the enemies of equality to build up the barriers that Jesus tore down. The Christian Church is not “too good for a girlie”.