Saturday, 28 September 2013

Women Bishops in the Light of Emancipation Dynamics

OK folks, that title was a bit of a cheat to get your attention! My blog stats tell me that you are 78% more likely to read anything I write if I put the words  'women bishops' in. If you're still reading, this post is actually about the dynamics of emancipation. And that's not necessarily gender-focused emancipation. There's a strange phenomenon when any group who are controlled, excluded or put down because of a common characteristic begin to challenge the status quo. There comes a time in the campaign when, although the  rightness of their case is clear to the majority and is proven to be persuasive at a rational level, huge amounts of effort go into arguing, political manoeuvring and even the use of force to ensure that the status quo is maintained. The sobering thing is that it's not just opponents who display such delaying tactics. They often spring from deeply subconscious levels of the psyche and are manifest in the behaviour of those who would tend to say that, on the whole, they support the move for emancipation. (The 'Why rush into it now?' argument is a good example of this.) Further, those who are oppressed often themselves collude in such opposition. They do this by poor organisation (they assume the cause is won before it is), too much sympathy for opponents (perhaps not having the courage to be seen as boat-rockers or to move outside comfort zones) and fragmentation (there is nearly always a division between extremist and moderate.) Any behaviour of this kind shows what feminists would term incomplete conscientization about the nature of oppression.

Historical examples? You can see elements of what I'm talking about in the civil rights movement in the USA, women's suffrage in the UK, Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society)'s campaign to save the Welsh language, the long haul to abolish slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (a story that is still not over), the attempt to get the South African government to acknowledge the spread of AIDS, the movement toward same sex civil partnerships and in the struggles of people with learning disabilities to be allowed to live as adults with the normal freedoms regarding their own education and reproductive life. There comes a point in most campaigns, just as the new order is almost within reach, that will be marked by vocal opposition and delaying tactics. In some campaigns, the use of violence, physical or verbal, breaks out on one side or both. This conflict stage can last a long time. It may be heralded as the catalyst for resolution but is seldom, of itself, decisive. If the phenomenon is not anticipated and planned for, it leads to a collapse in morale among those who may have done sterling work over many years to bring to light injustices and work for change. It can also seriously undermine an institution or organisation as people begin to ask, 'Is this worth all the effort and apparent chaos? ' (The classic argument at this stage is, 'We could be putting our energy into something so much more important.')

To come back to my title. The situation we have with women bishops is that while the vast majority are persuaded, there is a disproportionate amount of effort being put into strategies that make the final goal impossible. So, while I can guarantee a large audience for an article like this, suggesting that people think the recognition of the feminine in God and the life of faith is very important, I can be equally sure that the ideas it contains will spawn opposition which will be, in its own terms, effective in lending resistance. (This leads to the 'This is undermining our belief in reconciliation, unity and peace so we won't say anything,' argument and ultimately to voicelessness.)

Many people will say that emancipation is not a biblical or theological idea. They will point to the notion that it is a political concept to do with human rights. The word itself comes from the Latin 'ex manus capere' - to take from the hand and, in its earliest uses, usually denotes an extending of welcome or accepted status to those who were previously disenfranchised. Now, although this can indeed be understood in terms of the procurement of political rights, it is, I believe, just as valid to understand it in theological terms as the process of setting people free to be who they are in the image of God. Enter the Exodus narrative which is, for the Abrahamic faiths, the definitive story of God's desire to emancipate people from the chains that ensnare them and tie them to treatment that diminishes their humanity as well the imago Dei in them. Rabbi Dr Kenneth Chelst writes movingly in his book, Exodus and Emancipation, about the original exodus as akin to the experiences of African American slaves. Both peoples suffered centuries-long persecution. Emancipation is not over and against the biblical tradition - some kind of lesser secular value - but right at the heart of it. Of course, right there in the Exodus narrative we find most of the elements of opposition, conflict, self doubt, low morale and collusion in one's own adverse fate that I've mentioned above.     

Kenneth Chelst, Urim Publications 2009

Exclusion itself is not necessarily a bad thing. To exclude a group of children from an activity that is beyond their strength and ability might be a very commendable thing, serving the children's best interests. However, when a group of people persistently report that their exclusion is harmful and where means of discussion and development are denied, this is a strong clue that exclusion contains elements of oppression. History shows that the journey from exclusion to acceptance is always a political one. Sometimes the issue in hand is deemed to be of lesser significance than other more pressing issues and therein lies another danger (the 'These people don't know they are born compared to someone else' argument.) Again, feminist insight suggests that all forms of exclusion and oppression are linked in subtle and complex ways so that denial of one group's plight shapes, at a very deep level, what it is then possible to think and say about other groups. A few years ago a Nigerian student of mine did some empirical research across the university about attitudes to oppression. In the group he surveyed, he found that those who held the opinion that 'lesser' kinds of oppression are worth challenging were nearly three times as likely to be actively engaged in campaigning against more serious forms of oppression and exclusion. 

Do I detect that we have gone a bit soft on all this? The path to any form of change that involves a previously less acceptable group being included in mainstream activity is never easy and always costly.


  1. I have only found your blog today and was amazed at everything I have read.
    As a religious person, although not as religious as I used to be before my Lewy Body Dementia struck, I am amazed at the total lack of understanding the Church of England has these days.
    I simply do not understand why, Women are not allowed to become Bishops in the day and age. They are being treated like second class citizens, and this is simply not acceptable today. Why do gay clergy have more rights than Women.
    I hope the new ArchBishop can change things before its to late for all in the C of E.
    Keep up your brilliant work here, because its good to see your comments.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment. And every good wish to you in your path with LBD. It's not easy and I am trying to be committed to encouraging discussion and awareness including on this blog. (Guest posts welcome!)

  3. What brought this parallel home to me graphically was Mark Noll's book on the US war between the states as a theological problem. He carefully chronicles trends and contents of sermons promoting and (mostly) abominating abolition between the 1820's and the 1860's. Pretty much everybody saw themselves as "Bible believing" but coming to diametrically opposite conclusions about the moral mandate of the Bible for them. The differences were something to do with whether people read the Bible through a telephoto or wide angle lens — broad arc or verse by verse. Once discussion broke down, increasginly beleaguered Northern anti-abolitionists cashed the whole discussion into one about hermeneutics — either you believe int he Bible, with its 300+ endorsements of slavery, or you deny the Bible. Noll also draws interesting attention to the unique contribution of Roman Catholics, who actually had a different hermeneutic! It's fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for pointing me to this book.

  4. Likewise - I will get Noll's book. The history of slavery and how Christian hermeneutics shaped what was and wasn't possible is far more complex than is usually acknowledged and, I find it fascinating that you can see so many of the same attitudes at work in contemporary issues around oppression and exclusion. Many thanks.