Friday, 25 May 2012

Pick Your Own Bishop

Why are the amendments the bishops have made to the women bishops legislation a problem?

Personally, I can accept the technical point about the delegation/derivation of Episcopal authority. I don’t think it says anything new, but if it clarifies the position helpfully for some people then fair enough. (The point – for those of you fortunate enough not to have been following this debate in detail – is that whilst any assistant bishops only legally act in a diocese because of delegation from the diocesan bishop, the ‘bishopyness’ of their actions comes not from that delegation but from their own consecration as bishops. If that was news to you, then you may have found this clarification helpful.)

The problem is the other amendment. This says that the bishops and priests to be selected to minister in parishes that won’t accept a woman (or a man who ordains women) must be people who will exercise their ministry in accordance with the theological convictions about women of the parish concerned.

Now, on the face of it this seems sensible enough: don’t give a conservative evangelical bishop to a high anglo-catholic parish, and vice versa. And some of the bishops (such as Pete Broadbent, on his blog earlier this week) are saying that is precisely what was intended. If so, they have made a very bad job of drafting a piece of law to give effect to that intention. It is a hard thing to put into law – that’s precisely why the legislative groups that have worked so hard on this legislation rejected it. If you can't define something, don't write it into the statute books.

What the amendment actually says is that any theological conviction about women will be supported, with priests and bishops ordained specially for it. It seems clear that the point of this is to ensure that parishes that want a man who has never ordained a woman or (in some circles) had anything to do with ordained women, get what they want. This is bad enough, as it means the theology that women taint men (see 'The Female Ick Factor' blog post below) gets legal backing.

But the amendment is even worse than this, as it is so loosely drawn. There is no legal definition of what might be the limits of valid theological convictions about women. Synod has said in the past that those who dissent from women’s ordination may be considered loyal Anglicans, but this amendment goes far beyond that. It doesn’t say that if you dissent from women’s ordination you will be provided for – the legislation already said that. This says that whatever your particular views about women, however offensive, the hierarchy will support you in the consequent discrimination. They will even try (according to the archbishops’ notes to their press release) to make sure that they can keep a supply of special bishops on hand for ever to make sure this discrimination is fostered.

Why does this matter? Because if we pass this amended legislation, we will be asking Parliament to enshrine in English law that the established church will support any views about discrimination against women.

This goes far beyond the Act of Synod (the hastily bolted-on amendment the bishops made to the women priests legislation in 1992, which set up the concept of 'Flying Bishops'). That was presented at the time as kind, generous, pastoral provision for those who couldn’t in conscience accept the ordination of women – and has since been used to set up as close to an alternative church as possible. It is hard to imagine this amendment not being used in the same way, whatever the bishops say now.

But even the Act of Synod never said that you could choose your own alternative bishop based on whether they agreed with you. If you felt you needed a male priest or bishop, that would be respected. That is what the unamended legislation we had until this week said too.

Now the bishops seem to want to create a pick-your-own-bishop market.

The church is used to living with disagreement. What we don’t do is write it into our laws. At the height of the Arian controversy in the early church, or in the Reformation debates in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people managed with the bishop they had, even when they disagreed with him about virtually everything. Do we really want to say that the ordination of women is the most divisive issue we have ever faced as a church? That women are so uniquely problematic that on this issue, and this issue only, people are free to choose an alternative bishop who fully supports their views? Correction – people who disagree with the ordination of women are free to choose a bishop who fully supports their views.

The church needs to repent of its long history of treating women as a second-class creation.

We need to recognise that enshrining discrimination in church laws makes us complicit in creating a climate in which it is OK to treat women as less valuable than men.

Before this week, all the debate was about whether or not this legislation would get passed in July. What the bishops have done means that either outcome is a depressing prospect.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Stereotype Threat: disadvantaging women from the inside

One of the delights of my current job (as Interim Principal at Ustinov, Durham’s postgraduate college) is attending postgraduate seminars and hearing about all sorts of fascinating and eclectic research that our brilliant students are doing.

A few months ago, the stand out paper for me at one of these Ustinov Seminars was by two MSc students in the Psychology department, who were working on a field that was new to me, that of ‘stereotype threat’. This is the study of a well documented phenomenon: members of a group do less well on certain tests if they have been exposed before the test to wording that suggests that their group are likely to do less well. This is most often tried for women vs. men, but has also been shown to work for other groups, such as Black Americans vs. Europeans, etc.

So, for example, if a group of women are told that women tend to perform less well on spatial reasoning tests than men – or if that sort of commonly held stereotype is evoked more subtly, such as by asking them to list typical traits of men and women – then they tend to do less well on a subsequent spatial reasoning test than women who haven’t been exposed to the negative stereotype.

In other words, sexist stereotypes have a scientifically proven, measurable impact on performance.

Stereotypes disadvantage women not just by creating a discriminatory climate in which we then have to perform, but by actually changing the way our brains respond to that climate. They are, to some extent, self-fulfilling prophecies. Chilling stuff.

That got me thinking, as you might imagine, about what impact the current debates on women’s ordination are having on women in the church.

I’ve said elsewhere (eg in my recent letter to the Times) that one of the reasons women’s ordination is important is because women’s current exclusion from the church hierarchy justifies and entrenches sexist attitudes which have very serious consequences for women around the world. Rape, sexual abuse, violence against women and women’s political and economic subjugation are repeatedly justified on the basis that it is ‘natural’ and ‘God-given’ that women should be below men on some divine hierarchy.

That is obviously much more important than the mental health and performance of us who are lucky enough to be educated, employed and ordained. That having been said, I think its also worth noting that these views are having a very real impact on the ordained women of the church, and will continue to do so whether or not that woman is likely to become a bishop or not.

Those who are currently in positions of some influence in the church, the bishops and other senior staff who make appointments, often bemoan the ‘fact’ that women do not apply in sufficient numbers for senior posts. There are many theories as to why this is, and even whether it is in fact true, but it is frequently cited as a reason behind women not holding a proportionate number of senior appointments in the church. Whenever I publish a revised version of the Furlong Table, for example, bishops rush to explain to me that they would have loved to have appointed a woman archdeacon last time, but sadly there were no suitable candidates. We may well dispute such statements. But to the extent that there is truth in them, what impact might an understanding of the stereotype threat phenomenon have on women’s self-understanding, performance, and their likelihood of applying for senior posts – or indeed, any posts?

 A recent publication by the Diocese of Salisbury, ‘After July’, suggests that one of the reasons behind women not applying for senior posts
‘must be that many women have so internalised the Church’s ambivalence towards them and their ministry that they now lack the confidence to offer themselves for positions of responsibility’.
Such statements are usually discounted as being purely anecdotal. But the work of experimental psychologists on stereotype threat suggests that there is indeed likely to be a measurable and real affect on women’s performance when negative stereotypes are invoked.

And let’s be clear, negative stereotypes are invoked for a woman cleric whenever any job is advertised.

In the first place, we have indeed internalised the church’s ambivalence about our ministry, and tend to wonder whether a particular place really wants, or ‘is ready for’, a woman. But that is anecdotal. More specifically unarguable, though, is the fact that every parish profile currently evokes stereotype threat. The requirement for parish profiles to include a statement as to whether or not any Resolutions regarding women’s ministry have been passed means that even the most positive parish has to evoke the ghosts of ambivalence about women’s ministry. Even the most positive need to say that the matter has been discussed and no resolutions passed. It seems likely from the experimental evidence that simply the inclusion of this statement makes it less likely that a woman will apply.

Even worse, some parishes feel the need to attempt to get around the clear letter and spirit of the law by adding to that statement. I recently saw the particulars for one job which memorably included the following statement in its parish profile:
‘There is a wide range of opinion concerning the ordination of women. It has long been felt, however, that the views of all should be respected. Consequently, we have never signed the resolutions but we have agreed that the view of those who are conscientiously opposed to the ordination of women must be given due consideration’.
As a statement designed to elicit a stereotype-threat response, and ensure that no women applied for the post, that could scarcely be bettered: and in fact I know that at least one man was also put off applying to a parish that could be so disingenuously discriminatory.

Very occasionally one sees an example of good practice. The recent profile for an Archdeacon of Gloucester was an excellent example, in which stereotypes were deliberately subverted to attract a broader field of candidates. For example, the ‘your face here’ blank silhouette was deliberately unisex, but with longish hair to make it clear that a woman’s face might fit; and ‘s/he’, rather than ‘he or she’ was used throughout. Unsurprisingly, there was no problem there with a lack of women applicants.

I wonder if the church might be persuaded to commission some specific research on stereotype threat in job advertisements?  Women could, for example, be given a series of parish profiles, identical except in that one group had statements such as those above inserted into them. It would be relatively easy to measure, by asking which jobs they’d be most likely to apply for on a scale of 1 to 10, whether and to what extent such statements disadvantaged women applicants. I think they do, and I think an interesting test case could be brought arguing that the inclusion of such statements is indirect discrimination. Let’s remember, discrimination is – in theory – only allowed when Resolutions have been passed. But that very fact means we’re discriminated against every day.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The first in an occasional series on the doctrine of the Trinity (and history and feminism, naturally…).

Here’s where my thinking is going on the way in which the doctrine of the Trinity is used in debates about diversity, difference, society and the church. I’ll post more on this in the future, but for now this is a brief summary of the sort of questions I’m looking at. In twentieth century Christian thought, Trinitarian doctrine and language has been radically re-appropriated in the cause of social equality and community cohesion. The obvious example is the thought of Jurgen Moltmann, who arguably founded the modern idea of the social doctrine of the Trinity. He argued that because God is essentially Trinitarian, the church and society should be much less hierarchical and patriarchal, and much more communitarian and modelled on the idea of a society of equals. This idea has become very popular, sparking a whole school of Christian practical theology arguing that because God is trinity, a particular view of everything from social justice, ecclesiology, education, ministry, psychology, pastoral care or even town planning should follow. In the influential article ‘Perichoresis and Projection’, Karen Kilby skewered the over-inflated claims of some of this. However, Kilby and others are far too negative about the possibilities inherent in the doctrine of the Trinity (and indeed about modern Protestant theology in general). It must surely be true that what we believe about God has and should have some relevance to the way we live our lives; debunking bad ways of making that link needn’t retreat into denying that such a link is possible. But the fact that modern trinitarian theology has made such an explicit link between the ‘is’ of the nature of God and the ‘ought to be’ of the nature of government, both of the church and of wider society, raises the question of whether and how the same move has happened in the past. It seems obvious enough that this ‘social trinity’ trend in theology arises from the particular social and historical context of the second half of the twentieth century. So were the traditional hierarchy of the church and society similarly justified and conceptualised in theological terms in past centuries? Is it possible to trace through Christian history interactions between changing currents and fashions in political thought and in the theological conception of the trinity? Can we put what has been happening in twentieth century trinitarian theology into perspective by taking a long historical view? My preliminary research suggests that the answer to all these questions is yes. On the basis of that historical survey, I suggest that much of our current theological conflict arises because we have largely abandoned the hierarchical model of society which was fundamental to historical understandings of how to handle questions of difference, but have not yet reached general agreement on a replacement model. I think that many of the debates about women in the church, and indeed many of the debates about homophilia, are fundamentally debates about how we handle difference theologically. The recent explosion of interest in the Trinity as a theological resource is, I believe, an attempt to provide a coherent theology of difference and diversity that is not based on the old hierarchical model. However, such attempts are not yet fully thought-through: I think I’ve identified a number of areas, notably soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) which will need to adapt if new ways of thinking about difference are to be taken seriously. To be continued…

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Female Ick-Factor

Earlier this week I went to hear Richard Holloway – retired Bishop of Edinburgh – speak about his new book, Leaving Alexandria, at the Hexham Book Festival. It was a very enjoyable evening, with many moving and challenging moments, but one thing struck me in particular. When he was speaking about the debates surrounding the ordination of women, he described how disturbing the ways in which women were spoken about had been. As had been the case for centuries, women were typically defined as ‘gateways to sin’: men desire us, and so we are the vessels of temptation. Moreover, we are ritually unclean. Women’s ordination – even women in the sanctuary – were often rejected on the grounds of our bodily uncleanliness – we have unclean bodily emissions monthly, and we tempt men into the exchange of unclean bodily fluids.

None of this was new to me, but what struck me was how little we have heard of this in recent years. From a feminist perspective, this kind of thing is rather old hat. And in the church debates, even Forward in Faith and others most opposed to women’s ordination seem to have realised in recent years that this sort of language does them no favours, and so have stopped making quite such offensive remarks.

But these attitudes haven’t gone away just because they’ve gone underground.

Maybe we should revisit some of the language in which the debate over women’s ordination was framed in the very recent past. It shows how widespread these disturbing attitudes were. I suspect that such a view of women underlies much of the ‘gut feeling’ that some people express against women’s ordination, either consciously or subconsciously influencing the theological arguments that are presented. I also suspect that such attitudes underlie those biblical texts that are often cited against women’s ordination – in the ancient Jewish context in which those early Christian communities were formed, after all, women were considered  ‘unclean’ during menstruation, after intercourse, after childbirth, and so on.

These issues were named and analysed by Jane Shaw in Act of Synod, Act of Folly? edited by Monica Furlong (SCM, 1998). She pointed out that the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod  (the resolution of General Synod that set up ‘flying bishops’) is based on a theology of women’s uncleanliness – what she calls a theology of taint. Women are so unclean that not only is their own ministry rejected, but any male priest or bishop who has laid hands on them in ordination is also deemed polluted. This is why ‘flying bishops’ have been appointed for those who deem their own (male) diocesan bishop to be tainted by association with female clergy. Some have even behaved as if a woman’s priestly presence is so polluting that it defiles a church or altar, refusing to celebrate mass at a church polluted by female ministry.

I suggest that the current demands for structural ‘provision’, ‘safeguards’ or ‘protection’ for those who don’t accept that the ordination of women is a valid development stem from just such a theology of taint. It is now dressed up in words like ‘communion’, and people pretend that the ministry of male bishops who ordain women is unacceptable because they aren’t fully orthodox on this matter. But the church has never, ever allowed people to pick their own bishop based on whether they agree with them about everything. Even if this is about theological rectitude rather than the female ‘Ick-factor’, it is telling that it is opinions about women that are the one thing that the church is prepared to make an exception for. Believe what you like about virtually anything, but if you think that women are acceptable to God and the church as ordained ministers, you are tainted.

Don’t tell me that’s not sexism.