The puritans who scuppered female bishops revel in our criticism of them
Conservative evangelicals cannot be argued with. The more we say they’re wrong, the more convinced they become they’re right
There was this lad at school who got bullied all the time. When he wasn’t being bullied he was being ignored. He was thin, quiet and spotty. It says something that I cannot even remember his name. But at some point he got picked up by the Christian Union. They made him feel like he belonged and gave him a club to be a part of. And from then on, he began to wear the slightly superior look of someone who thinks he knows something that other people don’t know. Being an outsider became a badge of pride. He was now a Christian. And, in a way, the more ridiculous and unpopular the things he believed the better.
For his beliefs became a sort of barrier against the cruelty of the world. So the more people said his views were stupid, the more he felt the need for the protection they afforded him. His six impossible things before breakfast were a Maginot line against a world of hurt. Which is why he could never give them up or subject them to any sort of critical scrutiny.
Actually, I have made this person up. But I am trying to paint a picture of the mentality of conservative evangelicals, the people who have recently scuppered the female bishop legislation, without invoking the standard caricature of these modern-day puritans as life-denying fun-sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex. Not that this latter image is all that far from the truth. The problem is that from Marlowe, Shakespeare and Johnson all they way through to Blackadder (and that brilliant episode where his rich puritan relatives come round to fulminate against fornication and inadvertently chomp on a penis-shaped turnip), this has become an overused trope that describes someone who seems to have stepped out of the Tardis from another century. The thing is, they are alive and well in the 21st century.
And the more we laugh at puritans, the more it confirms their worldview. Indeed, they have a text from St John’s gospel that seems to cover precisely this: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world. That is why the world hates you.” In other words, the more hated you are, the more right you are. It’s one up from Millwall football club‘s chant: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” Which is why the opprobrium that is currently being poured upon conservative evangelicals for voting against women bishops will make no difference whatsoever. It confirms them in feeling right.
Moreover, the fact that they have put a spanner in the works for everyone else is something they experience as some sort of secret pleasure. For the essence of the puritan mindset is revenge – as Nietzsche accurately described it, the revenge of the bullied who are subconsciously getting back at those who once made their life a misery. As the comedy puritan Malvolio rages at the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.”
So what can be done? Argument is pretty useless. Conservative religious people are generally locked in a self-referencing worldview where truth is about strict internal coherence rather than any reaching out to reality. That’s why they treat the Bible like some vast jigsaw – its truth residing in a complex process of making the pieces fit together and not with the picture it creates.
So rather than laugh at them or argue with them, the best thing is probably ignore them. These modern-day puritans will always be with us. The problem is that the church needs a three-quarters synod majority to bring in women bishops and this gives them a controlling stake, holding the rest to ransom. The answer is simple. Reform synod and go round them.
I must confess, I mostly admire Fr. Giles Fraser’s articles in The Guardian. In this one, on the failure of the Women Bishops Draft Measure at last week’s General synod of the Church of England, though; I’m left wondering whether Giles hasn’t put too much of the blame onto the likes of ‘Reform’ Evangelicals (even though their stance really is – ‘NO REFORM – at any price’).
There is also an opposite polarity of churchmanship involved here – those, among the more esoteric Anglo-Catholics, who will not have a bar of Women in any sort of sacerdotal ministry – also, at any price. What they were aiming for though (those who haven’t yet sought refuge from women, in the Roman Catholic Ordinariate), was a much more water-tight arrangement in the church of England that would have guaranteed them immunity from having to accept any sort of authority from a Woman Bishop – even that authority that would have allowed them the sort of ministry they want – through HER authority – from an untainted Male Bishop!
Being, myself, what I would like to call, a reformed ‘Anglo-Catholic’ priest; I have had to move out of the ‘Men-only’ enclosure of ministry, in order to accept, with Saint Paul, that “In Christ there is neither male nor female” – and that must surely include those whom God is calling to minister in the Church as clergy and bishops. There can be no gender-related difference in the validity of their calling.
So, although Giles is probably not too far off the mark with some of his comments – about a small minority of ‘sola Scriptura‘ Evangelicals in the Church of England being at least partly responsible for the failure of the Women Bishops legislation at the General Synod – there are other, more liberally-minded, Evangelicals; like the Bishop of Sheffield (whose excellent charge to his post-G.S. diocesan Synod is now available) and others who are most adamant about the value of the ministry of Women in their local churches.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand