From the editor’s desk – ‘The Tablet’
With the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity just past, it is timely to rejoice that relations between the two major denominations in Britain have never been better, marked at the top by the sincere friendship between Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is no less a feature of relations between the diocesan bishops of the two Churches. They know each other, and work together on common causes. This ecumenical goodwill is too valuable a prize to be put at risk by a difference of doctrine regarding women’s ordination.
Hence the absence of any Catholic representation at the consecration this week of the first woman bishop in the Church of England must not become a habit. Sooner than they probably expect, many Catholic bishops are going to find that their Anglican opposite number is one of the gifted Anglican women whose promotion had been held back by internal disagreements in their own Church. There have been women bishops elsewhere in the Anglican Communion for some while, even on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.
However, the progress of women clergy on the Anglican career ladder should not obscure the fact that, like the Catholic Church, Anglicanism still has a “woman problem”. In both Churches, there is a tendency to stereotype women as more suitable for some roles than others, and those roles are often less prestigious. There is resistance in some Catholic quarters, for instance, to allowing girls to be altar servers, as it can be seen as usurping a traditional male role. It is not surprising there is a lack of women in leadership roles in the Church. In general, women are more likely to be in church on Sundays; boys quickly pick up on that. A recent survey found that men are more likely than women to have no religious belief. So this is a self-perpetuating sexist stereotype.
While suffering from gender stereotyping in this way, Churches can also promote it, often as “complementarity”. This says that the genders are equal but different, women and men each contributing what the other lacks. Thus the preliminary paper for the conference being hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican next week on “women’s cultures” argues that “there is a women’s ‘perspective’ on the world and all that surrounds us, on life and on experience”. This is a normal part of all cultures and societies, it claims – in the family and in work, in politics and the economy, in art and sport, even – ignoring all evidence to the contrary – in fashion and cuisine.
This promotes the stereotypical assumption that some human attributes are innately masculine and some innately feminine. This reinforces the conditioning that it is deviant and unmanly for a male to show qualities that are labelled by the culture as belonging mainly to females, and vice versa. The irony is that many of those allegedly feminine qualities – empathetic intuition, gentleness, compassion, nurturing – are not gender-specific, but Christ-like. Christianity can be its own worst enemy.
“.the absence of any Catholic representation at the consecration this week of the first woman bishop in the Church of England must not become a habit.”
The ‘Tablet‘ Editorial, in the U.K.’s largest circulation Roman Catholic newspaper, gives eloquent testimony to the good will existing between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in that country. However, the above statement, which is part of the editorial, also evidences the fact that the absence of any official Roman Catholic presence at the recent episcopal ordination of the Church of England’s first female bishop, The Rt. Revd. Libby Lane, ought not be an augury of the future Roman Catholic attitude towards the ministry of women in the Church.
The final paragraph of this excellent editorial gets to the heart of the matter of the tendency to type authority and ministerial roles in the Church as being gender-based – which is a direct denial of St. Paul’s wiser counsel that: “In Christ, there is neither male nor female”. Here again is that final paragraph:
“This promotes the stereotypical assumption that some human attributes are innately masculine and some innately feminine. This reinforces the conditioning that it is deviant and unmanly for a male to show qualities that are labelled by the culture as belonging mainly to females, and vice versa. The irony is that many of those allegedly feminine qualities – empathetic intuition, gentleness, compassion, nurturing – are not gender-specific, but Christ-like. Christianity can be its own worst enemy.”
I applaud the Editor of the ‘Tablet’ for this courageous stand against traditional gender-discrimination in the Christian Churches. However, it will be most interesting to see if any Roman Catholic representation is present at the next episcopal ordination in York Minster – that of Fr. Phillip North, a member of F.i.F. (Forward in Faith), the Church of England group that rejects the ordination of women – despite its acceptance by the General Synod of the Church of England.
Any R.C. presence would be an indication of their support for the F.i.F. stance against the ministry of women as priests and bishops in the Church. At this juncture in the relations between the two Churches in the U.K., such a presence would indicate an ongoing problem based on gender discrimination that would exacerbate the difficulties still remaining in the quest for Christian Unity. Until such matters are settled, Christ’s prayer: “That all may be one, as you, Father, and I are one”, may yet remain unrealised.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand