Women Bishops – A Plus or a Minus?


This week’s post is written by British Humanist Martin Naylor who tweets as @woobasher. The United Kingdom doesn’t have quite the separation of church and state as is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Twenty-six bishops sit in their upper house of parliament, The House of Lords. Martin looks at the difference between reactions to discrimination against women inside and outside religion.

This week, British barrister Charlotte Proudman tweeted angrily about a male solicitor, twice her age, who had complimented her on LinkedIn after she’d invited him to connect. He didn’t say anything extreme but was clearly inappropriate, and he knew it, because he’d hedged his bets with his first few words.

“Charlotte, delighted to connect, I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!! “You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen..”



The tweet generated a massive response in support of Mrs. Proudman, which then became a hot media topic. One feels a collective lesson has been learnt here because one woman spoke out, thousands more came out in support and the question What do you think? triggered conversations between couples all over the country. Women feel the need to support each other against the institutional and cultural sexism they face and seized this opportunity to do so, but this kind of positive reaction isn’t always what we see. Back in November 2012 I commented on the Church of England’s wranglings over whether female bishops should be ordained. We saw women openly stating that other women were unfit to be Anglican bishops, because they were women. Their arguments ran along the lines that it was “against the word of God.”

In a world where women lead companies and countries, have visited space, served across the armed forces, made breakthroughs in all branches of science and thrilled us in previously male only sports, it is seemingly only where religions are pulling the strings that women openly discriminate against themselves. In the country that gave us Boudica, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Helen Bright Clark and Anita Roddick, it seems sad that women can hold such repressive views about their own roles.

Now let’s be clear; a bishop is not a position for which I can muster any respect outside of a chess board. Attaining power by mendaciously asserting fiction as fact is no way for an adult to behave. I’d reserve far more time for an expert of fiction who treats it as that. What’s more, if you were chair of the Sherlock Holmes Society or even the Star Trek Fan Club you wouldn’t be trying to influence my thoughts or those of my government. You wouldn’t be manipulating your parishioners by perpetuating a fantasy. Despite all that, a woman should have the right to be a bishop if she wants to. This was so hard for them because of the prejudice inherent in scripture. Surely it is reprehensible for any institution, however irrelevant, to have discrimination as a core moral tenet. Unperturbed, some women wanted a leadership role but in 2012, despite the support of bishops and clergy, who knew where their bread was buttered, the laity of the Church of England voted that women bishops wouldn’t be consecrated for at least another five years.

At the time I hoped this would accelerate the church’s decline as a generation of women saw that they were considered second rate or, as one female commentator put it, that this rejection must be God’s will. Deep down we all knew the church would overlook scripture to accommodate modern thought and avoid losing valuable female support. In doing so it would be trailing a few decades behind prevailing moral values—despite maintaining its “turn to” position for the BBC when discussing any moral issue. As it turned out the “at least another five years” statement turned out to be another case of religious dishonesty and a woman bishop, Libby Lane, was consecrated in January this year to take a powerful role in an organisation that demeans women as a matter of routine. As I said at the time “It’s a great leap forward for a woman. It’s a great leap backwards for womankind.”


Anglicanism remains quite staunch in its prejudice and plenty of women lay voters openly stated that they had voted to reject the motion. The C of E is, however, towards the mild end of the scale when it comes to displays of misogyny. In the same week that women bishops were being rejected back in November 2012 we saw the death of Savita Halappanava after she was denied a life-saving abortion in Ireland because “this is a Catholic country.” Since then we’ve witnessed isolated incidents like the sickening kidnap of 200 schoolgirls by the Muslim fanatics of Boko Haram. On a more routine basis, the horrific Muslim practice of female genital mutilation [FGM] persists in many countries.

Mrs. Proudman stood up against an irritating form of persecution where she was sexually objectified in a professional context. She did this not so much because of the isolated event but because of the persistently unbalanced culture it forms part of. In the UK women earn less than men and their careers stall due to parenthood and they are underrepresented in boardrooms and government. In darker circumstances they are abused by their husbands, raped by strangers, and murdered by exes. Female survivors of violence face a legal system that often seems to blame them wholly or in part for the ordeals they have suffered. This clearly isn’t the fate of all women in a society that is relatively forward thinking but Mrs. Proudman experiences full exposure through her legal work, and her charitable campaigning against FGM means she sees the brutality that occurs, often in the name of religion, in the wider global society. She rails against it and sees smaller indiscretions as the mild end of a problem that’s all too serious.

Women have different levels of response to issues surround inequality and violence against their gender (and their children) but when a leader emerges to galvanise them, the shared voice and the support is there. It is only when religion has shaped the thought processes that groups of women will actively discriminate against women or seek to protect the people who have perpetrated the abuse. Religion is responsible for inequality and discrimination issues from the moderate to the macabre. In the same way that workplace sexism is part of the same problem, which sees violence perpetrated against women, we can view the more innocuous repressions of religion as providing tacit support for the more abhorrent acts. To pompously quote myself: “Religious moderates provide the foundations on which fundamentalists build their palaces of hate.” If women’s ascent through these organisations remains as superficial as it appears to be, then I would hypothesise that the acceptance of women bishops is potentially more damaging to feminism than the status quo would have been.

September 25, 2015



About the Author Karen Garst


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