“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” opined Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Yesterday he got his wish, as the Church of England ordained its first woman bishop.
The Reverend Libby Lane was made Bishop of Stockport at York Minster. The service was briefly interrupted by a man in the congregation who, when asked by Dr John Sentamu if it was the congregation’s “will that she should be ordained”, shouted out “No. Not in the Bible. With respect your Grace I ask to speak on this absolute impediment.” The awkward moment was dealt with in the traditional English manner, by ignoring it and carrying on as if nothing had happened.
This has been the general attitude towards anyone who dares raise an objection to the new orthodoxy that gender roles are interchangeable: refuse to engage in debate, and act as though any opposition is based on bigotry rather than rational thought and hard evidence.
There are good reasons to oppose the concept of women priests, and the arguments deserve a fair hearing. For one thing, Libby Lane’s heckler is correct: the Bible tells us that Jesus chose his apostles only from among men, and the Church considered itself bound by that choice. The choice didn’t proceed from sociological motives peculiar to the time – priestesses were around then – so Jesus wasn’t bowing to convention. Right from the beginning, his was a counter-cultural church defying convention. As far as the Church of England goes, that’s no longer the case.
What’s more, the bishop or priest is understood to be ‘in persona Christi’, representing Christ. Christ’s humanity wasn’t gender neutral. He was a man.
So the priest who stands for him must also be a man. The priestly role affirms our separate identities as men and women and says that gender roles are not interchangeable. There is something special that women can do that men can’t do, and vice versa.
I belong to a generation of young women born in the 1970s and 1980s raised on second wave feminism, and I know I’m supposed to be on board with women’s ordination. I know I’m supposed to view it as a step forward in the ongoing emancipation of women. But I can’t. I’ve always felt that women priests just look wrong.
Teasing that out a bit, it comes down to the fact that priests are meant to be a sacramental sign, with a natural resemblance to the thing they represent; a sign that is easily perceptible and easily recognizable by the faithful. A woman priest isn’t easily recognizable in this manner.
And I can’t help feeling that feminism isn’t furthered by emulating men, or climbing structures currently dominated by male values. Libby Lane has smashed the (stained) glass ceiling with her appointment as the first female bishop. Liberals say this makes her a great “role model for girls” but their language is all about climbing the hierarchy; about women being successful in a chosen career – not about humble service, or about caring values. Priesthood is an office of service not careerism.
What does it say about our society if we think the only thing that validates a woman is whether she exercises a leadership role? There is much that falls under the office of women that is valuable work. If doing that work doesn’t make women leaders in society that’s only because a traditionally male-dominated society has valued power, domination, and leadership, rather than care and service. It’s a sick society that can’t value hidden humble roles that aren’t about power and status, and it’s a sick society that only values priests – male or female – for how high up the hierarchy they climb. To view the priesthood this way is to fall prey to clericalism. The race to ordain women bishops is ultimately about clericalism because it reinforces the idea that people are only valued when in a position of leadership.
It’s up to women to say, “We know we don’t need to be priests, because there’s so much we’re doing besides”. Let men be men, and let priests be fathers in their communities, because the role model that girls – and boys – really need right now is that of a good father.