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What the church owes to secular feminism

Rowan Williams's campaign to ordinate women bishops.

Rowan Williams. Photograph: Getty Images

Ahead of the Synod vote scheduled for 20th, Rowan Williams has "launched a campaign" to secure what would be his most significant legacy, the ordination of women as Anglican bishops.

The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury has always supported women bishops in principle, but progress has been glacially slow during his ten years at Lambeth Palace.  His hope now, as he prepares to step down at the end of the year, is that a formula has finally been found that will keep opponents of the move reasonably happy without alienating the majority of church members who want to see full equality in the priesthood.  The title of his latest article suggests a certain impatience with the process: "Enough Waiting."

Writing in the Church Times,  Williams is careful to make his argument in terms of the Bible and church history, writing that since all Christians are supposed to be one in Jesus Christ it would be "inconsistent to exclude in principle any baptised person from the possibility of ordained ministry."  He further suggests that, having made women priests already, to prevent them from occupying the senior leadership role of bishop makes nonsense of the "organically unified" nature of ordained ministry.  He argues that "a Church that ordains women as priests but not as bishops is stuck with a real anomaly."

Some might find it equally anomalous to for the church to have women as members but not as clergy, given that Christians are supposed to be equal in the sight of God and Rowan Williams seems to agree.  But surely the reason that women bishops (or even priests) ever came to be an issue has less to do with theology, however obvious it may now seem that equality is an important Christian principle, than about history.  St Paul wrote almost two thousand years ago that "there is there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ", but slavery and gender discrimination persisted for many centuries.  Many Christians protested against the slave trade, but others (including the Church of England itself) actually owned slaves. 

As for sexual equality, that is so recent a phenomenon - if indeed it exists - that there are people still alive who were born before women in Britain got the vote.  And far from being in the vanguard of change, the churches have been among the last institutions to open their professional doors to women, and some (notably the Roman Catholic Church) have become more rather than less trenchant in their opposition to an equal ministry in recent years.

Rowan Williams comes close to acknowledging this.  "We must be honest," he writes, "and admit that without secular feminism we might never have seen the urgency of this or the inconsistency of our previous position."  It is possible to find antecedents to modern ideas of gender equality in Christian history, but they're hardly mainstream.  Some scholars would argue that women played a leading role in the early church, and may even have enjoyed a status equivalent to later priests or bishops, though the evidence for this is patchy.  Less controversially, there were Christian sects at around the time of the English civil war in which women preached and held leadership positions.  These were, however, generally seen as fringe or heretical, at best as somewhat eccentric. 

Some of these groups survived, most notably the Quakers, and Quakers did indeed play a significant role in later campaigns for women's rights.  Most churches, though, remained influenced by tradition and by those passages in the Bible that stress the difference between men and women and recommend a subordinate role for the latter.  The best that can be said is that the churches were not obviously worse than most other institutions.  There were no women priests or bishops, but there were no women doctors, judges or members of Parliament either.  The church was part of society, and reflected its general assumptions. 

What happened?  I would suggest that it was secularism that drove a wedge between the churches and the wider world.  It became natural to interpret changes in society that owed nothing to Christianity as being anti-religious, and therefore as something that Christians should reject. Modern feminism has indeed been largely a secular phenomenon, while the Christian churches have been among the strongest bastions of a traditional view of women's role.  The cycle has proved difficult to break.

At its best, Christianity has been on the cutting edge of culture, challenging old assumptions and asking questions of those in power, providing a voice to the voiceless.  At its worst, it has been reactionary and an ally of reaction, propping up tyrants and fighting to preserve its own privileges.  That remains true today.  When it finally votes to ordain women as bishops, the Church of England will be following the secular world rather than leading it, but the alternative is to turn its back and render itself increasingly irrelevant.