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Women Bishops and leadership in the Church of England

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Women Bishops – long overdue vote goes through!

No doubt much will be written about what has just happened at the Church of England’s General Synod meeting this week. The vote in favour of pursuing the legislation which will, in due course and all being well, enable women to be consecrated bishops was passed with 378 in favour, 8 against and 25 abstentions. About time, one might say and long overdue. Much time and energy has gone into this over the preceding years, and one might hope that the focus of debate can now shift to other matters, ones shared by the majority of the UK populace who have not been able to see what the problem is anyway! Certainly one of the reported reasons for the decline in credibility of the Church of England is its failure to agree to measures that many see as a matter of natural justice rather of theological nicety. But what is to be gained from all this apart from the opportunity of a minority of females to enter the elite higher echelons of the hierarchy? Why would anyone want to become a bishop in the first place? Will this herald the beginning of a different approach to leadership within the institution or simply replicate existing models?

To look at this from a sociological perspective, if one creates a level of hierarchy – lets call them bishops – and then appoints people (male or female) to function at this level, then the vast majority of these individuals will then proceed to harmonize with their peer group, take on the characteristics and ethos of that group, and then begin to behave as bishops are expected to do. One has automatically created a distance as well as a power relationship between those people, their clergy, and indeed their congregations and laity. Is this not the defining and determining factor rather than that of gender? I assume that those who have fought for women in the episcopacy would argue that this is not the case, and that they bring something different and distinctive to the role, relating to or originating from their gender perspective. Perhaps those familiar with philosophical debates about essentialism and the construction of human identity that have emerged both from within feminism itself and other recent traditions, can begin to see some problems here: if there is no essential female identity, then it becomes more difficult to argue that women will automatically, by virtue of their gender, bring some new and distinctive characteristics to the role. Perhaps it will need a critical mass of women on the bench of bishops to really make a difference?

Is it possible to follow a different route, one that could apply just as much to men as to women? I would hope this is the case, otherwise it is hard to see how having women bishops will do anything other than perpetuate existing power structures which now seem outdated, and leave the hierarchy increasingly out of touch with grass roots both in the church and outside it. One could argue against this that current leadership models such as that of the charismatic and outspoken media profile of the new Archbishop of Canterbury do still carry authority and credibility, but I suspect that this particular example of the Old Etonian and business-oriented persona will soon begin to wear thin once difficult financial and strategic decisions about mundane but essential parish life come to the fore. The model of the lone individual who has worked their way rapidly through the ranks through dint of devotion to duty, and no lack of appropriate background and personal connections, smacks far too much of Empire and establishment to be sustainable in a culture which requires a greater awareness of the importance of new networks where no one person dominates for any length of time.

So, to add some ideas of a more philosophical nature to the debate, how might one look again at the concept of essentialism? My main source for this is the work of Bruno Latour, and I can do no more than throw some hints into the equation which apply, in his work, to both the human and the non-human alike. An “essence” is a local work-in-progress that looks more complicated, folded, multiple and entangled than one might expect. Such “essences” are interdependent rather than independent, have no clear boundaries and lots of connections that lead them in different directions, forming rhizomes and networks on which the individual subject is like a node or point of connection. Rather than the stability or equilibrium which would characterize a more traditional understanding of either human subject or independent object, such assemblages of relationships are constantly open to change and reconfiguration – metastability rather than stability then. In order to understand them, one must track all the different strands and connections and accept that, as far as humans are concerned, there is no essential, once-for-all identity that can be contained within a role or model.

Should this all sound rather abstract and remote from real life, I could recount the story of the older female parishioner who was stoutly opposed to the idea of gay relationships, until she encountered a gay couple who arrived to run the local shop. The actual encounter in which this couple befriended the lady in question transformed her views. I remember her agonizing caught between her deeply held convictions which she believed were based on her faith, and her honest attempts to respond positively to a genuine human relationship. Fortunately it was the latter which won out. Despite her convictions she was open to change, able to backtrack and reconstruct without abandoned her faith, but rather through reinterpreting it.

If one can gain a sense of process, movement, fluidity, complexity and entanglement, then here is a very different notion of what it is to be human that offers a distinct alternative to the rather static, solid and even ossified picture of episcopal hierarchy which currently predominates. I would not rule out the possibility that some male members of the ecclesiastical elite would see themselves in this way, but I would hope that female bishops-to-be would certainly share this more dynamic and inclusive concept of human becoming and thereby add new and badly needed dimensions to a body that needs new life and vision.

Revd Dr John Reader, William Temple Foundation.

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