Thinking Anglicans

Linda Woodhead: A woman's place

Once again we have permission from the Editor of The Tablet to reproduce two articles from last week’s issue, dealing with the General Synod’s failure to approve legislation allowing women to become bishops. The first one by Mark Chapman was reproduced here. The second one by Linda Woodhead is below.

A woman’s place

The Church of England is supposedly more hospitable to women than the Catholic Church. After all, the Anglicans ordain women priests and there are laywomen on the General Synod. Here, an Anglican authority on the sociology of religion turns conventional wisdom on its head

Listening to the General Synod debate on women bishops last week, I chortled with recognition when I hear the line: “Of course women aren’t just there to make the tea … Though that is an important aspect of diaconal ministry.” I remember being surprised when I was being inducted as tutor in doctrine and ethics at an Anglican clergy-training college to be asked if I could sew tablecloths. I was equally surprised to find that when I addressed certain gatherings of clergy I seemed to have donned a Harry Potter invisibility cloak.

What shocked me more was the way that insults and downright cruelty went unchecked and unchallenged. I remember a woman ordinand in an Anglo-Catholic college having her “pray for me on the day of my ordination” cards torn up and returned to her pigeonhole by fellow ordinands opposed to the ordination of women. And I remember how, at the ordination services I attended for some of the first women to be made priests, the presiding bishops told them not to celebrate out of compassion for their opponents.

That was 20 years ago. Surely things have changed? It’s true that half of all Anglican ordinands are now female, and a third of all clergy. Moreover, the gender equality scores (where 100 per cent would be perfect equality) have risen from 19 per cent in 2000 to 35 per cent in 2010. But progress has been spotty – in 2010 Blackburn and Chichester Dioceses could still only manage a score of 11 per cent. With the exception of a few high-flyers, women priests are often marginalised – in the least popular parishes, outside the positions of greatest power, and as unpaid or “non-stipendiary”. According to the Church’s own statistics, in 2011 fewer than a quarter of stipendiary clergy were female, compared with more than half non-stipendiary.

Anglican theology also remains a male bastion. In the university departments in which it is largely housed, women make up only 28-30 per cent of the staff, according to a recent study from Durham University (this compares with 57 per cent in languages, 48 per cent in law, and 27 per cent in maths). In fact it’s even worse, because not all of the 28 per cent are theologians, fewer still systematic theologians. Women trained in theology often move into areas which are more open to their talents, including practical theology, Christian ethics and sociology of religion.

Moving beyond the Churches, it’s easier to name prominent Catholic women in British society than prominent Anglicans. In planning a series of debates on religion in public life, my colleagues and I kept thinking of women with interesting things to say on the subject – and realising that they were nearly all Catholic. It’s not that Anglican women don’t make a vital contribution to society, but Catholics seem more willing to own their faith and speak openly about it. Ironically, it may be that the ordination of women in the Church of England has actually served as a brake on progress. By limiting the priesthood to celibate men, the Catholic Church has inadvertently liberated a large and well-educated laity to get on with living out their faith, independent of clerical constraints. By contrast, ordained Anglican women may find that wearing a dog collar means you can be put on a leash.

It’s not that the Church of England is as overtly authoritarian as the Catholic Church; it exercises control in more subtle ways. A prime one is the cult of niceness. You mustn’t be ambitious, and you can never, ever get angry. This applies to women more than to men: they must be patient and caring at all times. Any form of protest or demand is interpreted as pushy, unfeminine and unchristian.

The problem is compounded by a pervasive Anglican commitment to the importance of unity and inclusion. It’s this pursuit of the “common good” that has led the bishops to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that those who oppose women’s equal treatment don’t feel excluded. They have, in effect, allowed the establishment of a Church within a Church – and this is what opponents of women bishops want to strengthen, contrary to all traditional understandings of the bishop’s role as guarantor of unity.

By virtue of being lay, women in the Catholic Church escape a lot of these pressures. Their Church’s teachings give more weight to issues of truth and justice than the Church of England’s, and there’s a humour and honest earthiness about the Catholic Church and a willingness to criticise and challenge, which I often miss in my own.

Catholic women in Britain are also helped by the fact that they belong to a minority with a history of struggle against poverty and prejudice. Members of religious minorities tend to support one another. They encourage girls to be educated, get good jobs and gain the advantages that their parents – above all their mothers – could only dream of. In practice this means that Britain has many good Catholic schools with inspiring women teachers. Until recently, some of those teachers used to be nuns, sent with a mission to uplift and educate the Catholics in Britain. I attended one myself for a few years, and very empowering it was too. State-assisted Catholic schools often do similar work.

Anglican schools seem not to offer their pupils such clear identity, nor to help workingclass girls in the same way. The Church of England remains class-ridden. Public schoolboys are prominent among its leaders, and the model of the pastor with supportive wife and large family lives on.

All this may offer a crumb of comfort to Catholics, but it’s not really good news for either Church. The Catholic Church has proved more hospitable to women in spite of its official teachings and practices, not because of them, and the Anglican Church has managed to turn its ordination of women into a problem rather than a solution. This is serious for both Churches, as they contemplate declining numbers. When they began to lose power and prestige after the 1970s, increasingly welleducated but still-faithful women were the natural group to step in and inject new energy. By excluding them from senior leadership positions and influence, both Anglicans and Catholics have squandered a vital resource. Some women have done their very best to save the situation. But their difficult experiences and repeated disappointments make it ever less likely that their daughters will do the same.

  • Linda Woodhead is professor of the sociology of religion in the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University.
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Lindsay Southern
Lindsay Southern
11 years ago

An astute and insightful comment on what it is like to be a woman, particularly a female clergyperson within the Church of England. It would be good if we could pay attention to the effect that our structures have on people – particularly with regard to squandering human resources. It is also necessary to be aware of the long term consequences.. Although this situation has been tolerated as a result of the prevalent culture of niceness, I believe this tolerance is now, quite rightly, in decline and that the Cof E can no longer presume that people will inevitably stay… Read more »

English Athena
English Athena
11 years ago

Well, I certainly recognise the attitudes to women described here. Though tearing up people’s mail is nasty, nasty, nasty. But I’ve seen similar in the CofE. New incumbents who didn’t admit to being anti-women when appointed, for example, but who tell the female licensed lay ministers their services will no longer be required. Or a similarly inclined incumbent who just announced to the PCC that so-and-so was retiring. The first she heard of it was when someone approached her and said how sorry they were. Both still in post, both sets of female ministers still out. And yeah, you’re not… Read more »

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