Wednesday 21 January 2015

Woman's Touch Not Welcome

My name on Wikipedia comes up with (among others) Philip North, soon to be consecrated Bishop of Burnley. I don't know Philip, we have never met. Nothing I say here is intended to reflect on him personally and I wish him well in his new ministry.

However, this tenuous internet connection puzzles me because my life has been dedicated, among other things, to the quest for a theological and social understanding of the equality of men and women, an equality I believe to be demonstrated in the Gospels and the teaching and actions of Jesus.

Because the Archbishop of York and other bishops ordain women, it has reportedly been requested that they refrain from laying hands on the new bishop at his consecration. Jonathan Clatworthy here writes about this in the Modern Church blog.

There is a very old tradition in Christianity that Eve, a woman, was the first person to disobey God. Down the centuries, this story has been used to explain pain in childbirth (such that some nineteenth century Church of England theologians taught it was contrary to God's purposes to relieve a labouring woman in pain.) It has also been used to justify the belief that women are temptresses and more sinful than men. The impact on social attitudes to women down the ages and, still, today has been incalculable, leading to the persecution of women in many societies. It seems very clear that Jesus flouted and undermined such attitudes. He socialised with women, allowed them to touch Him, accepted their gifts, debated with them and let their words and actions shape His thinking. Finally, He accepted them to the extent that His resurrection was first witnessed by a woman. 

Those who oppose women's ordination appeal to arguments about the necessity for a purely male succession from the original male apostles to today's priests and bishops. It may seem to some a small concession to make. It is not.

A white woman's labour got into serious trouble. The on-call obstetrician was black. When she arrived on the labour suite, the woman's husband said, in very offensive language which I will not repeat, that he would not have his wife delivered by her. Events took over and the woman and baby were safely delivered. The obstetrician gave the husband her hand and he broke down in tears, thanking her. 

What do we have to endure or say or do to get across that it is deeply damaging to have bishops who cannot be touched at their consecration not just by women, but by men who have touched women in consecration? Again, you may be tempted to say that this is a rarified churchy argument. It is not; it emerges from a whole belief system that pervades many societies and puts women down, claiming they are second class, more sinful, to be ruled by men and to be kept within certain boundaries. The impact of this teaching was powerfully brought home to me at Christmas. I listened to a sublime recording of a Kings College Carol Service from the 1950's. The music was wonderful. The first reading was given by a young choirboy who solemnly read the words,

'And the Lord God said unto the woman, 'What is this that thou hast done?' And the woman said, 'Thou beguiled me and I did eat.'…….. Unto the woman He said, 'I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be for thy husband and he shall rule over thee.'  (Genesis 3 v.13 & 16, King James Bible.)

This was read without any explanation or interpretation by a boy of perhaps 13 - the sin of woman, clearly proclaimed as the reason for the incarnation (Christ's coming to earth). The story is understood by most people as an aetiology, in other words, an explanation, after the event, of the way things are. Scholars saw that women suffered in childbirth and looked for an explanation. However, in 1952, the whole message of the service was clearly that womankind is responsible for God having to rescue us from sin and this message was proclaimed to a mature and intelligent congregation by a thirteen year old boy. I guess that either you can or you can't see the connection between this and the treatment women have endured down the centuries.

It is really not acceptable for the Church of England or any church to go on teaching that it is OK to believe this. If you replace 'woman' with a whole range of other people whose genetic characteristics are different from some traditionally or socially defined 'norm', you may understand how outrageous this is.

I have seen women bleed to death after childbirth who could have been saved if their husbands had allowed them to go to hospital; I have taught English to girls deprived of education because they are women; I have earned three quarters of a man's wage because I am a woman; I have listened to stories of domestic abuse justified by leaders; I have been bullied by those who cannot cope with the reality of a woman doing the job.

I completely agree with the Archbishop of York  that the challenge of our time is to dismantle the massive imbalance in available resources between the poorest and the richest both nationally and globally. If you are a woman or a girl child, you are a great deal more likely to suffer from the multiple effects of poverty. I've recently been reading a book challenging the church to stop arguing over matters to do with gender and sex and to get back to an agenda that agonises and takes action over economic and resource-based injustices. Absolutely. This ought to encompass a priority toward the disenfranchised. Instead of saying, 'Let's sidestep the plight of women and concentrate on hunger/violence/clean water/disease control' (which is a fallacy anyway, as women disproportionately suffer these ills) we should be saying, 'Let's sidestep the requirements of those who see the touch of women as unacceptable in order to concentrate on hunger/violence/clean water/disease control.   


  1. Thank you Janet. Well put.
    I too struggle with your final point. In the light of all the hunger and violence, why pay attention to the Philip North agenda? The way I handle it is that the big issues aren’t going to be solved without some spiritual dimension. Recognising the need for a spiritual dimension is made harder by the way the big religious institutions discredit themselves.

  2. Brilliant. Thank you for putting the matter so clearly and highlighting the damage that the 'taint of sin' argument has done to women throughout the ages, and still is doing today.