Female bishops: Not just a matter of tweaking the job description

The Church of England has worldly money, power and influence, so it needs to confront worldly issues like equality.

My memories of Sunday school are generally hazy, but here’s one that stands out: one bright autumn day in the early 1980s, our Sunday school teacher decided to ask us, the children, what we thought our church should be like. I don’t know why she did this. As you’d expect, it was greeted by complete and utter silence, at least until my brother, struck by decidedly non-divine inspiration, decided to raise his hand:

Miss, I think it should be like the Kenny Everett show.                                            

To be fair, I suspect he was thinking of the character Brother Lee Love, so this wasn’t completely out of context. Either way, this proposal was not well-received. Well, Church of England, more fool you. If only you’d listened you’d now be, if not more politically correct, at least more amusing and creative in your use of sexism.

Although raised a Christian, I am not religious (although it’s not for want of trying, given 1. my desire to appear virtuous and 2. my fear of my own mortality). I am nevertheless extremely disappointed by the General Synod’s failure to gain the two-thirds majority required to pass legislation allowing women to be consecrated as bishops. I don’t personally want to be a bishop, nor do I want to interfere with an individual’s right to think sexist thoughts, be they spiritually motivated or otherwise. I do however want institutions to treat people fairly and not to have get-out clauses when it comes to valuing women just as much as men. I realise all this sounds a bit worldly. That’s because it’s meant to.

Writing in the Telegraph, trainee chaplain Jemima Thackray frets that the campaign for women bishops was undermined by the use of worldly feminist arguments which “sounded too much like a contrived government initiative to get women into the boardroom” (urgh!):

But the fact is that bishops aren’t normal workplace bosses, they are meant to be servants. […] Perhaps the campaign for women bishops would have benefitted from swapping the feminist rhetoric for a similar recognition that the authority of being a bishop is not a right or a reward but in fact a responsibility to serve others and a space to exercise God-given gifts.

The problem with this, of course, is that for so many of us affected it’s a nonsense. It doesn’t matter what spin you put on it. It’s all very well to claim that being bishop “is not a right or a reward but in fact a responsibility to serve others” (perhaps one could employ an advertising agency to develop some suitably manipulative slogans based on this self-serving line). This isn’t an argument about job descriptions or indeed power. It’s about respect for fellow human beings, whether they are religious or not. The General Synod vote insults all women. This should not go unchallenged.

The Church of England claims money, power and influence yet retreats into squeamishness about “worldly” issues whenever its own prejudices are challenged. It’s a tremendously flexible means of circumventing the moral strictures by which the rest of us have to live. Voluntary aided C of E schools can prioritise places for children based on the religion of their parents or they can choose not to. It depends, not on the word of God, but on how they wish to shape the “culture” that surrounds them. Perhaps in some cases it’s better not to prioritise religion -  too many places for devout Polish immigrants, not enough for “true” C of E types, regardless of whether they attend a church or not. The right to discriminate – defended, without irony, on the grounds that to remove it would constitute discrimination – makes it possible to do anything. Keep out the godless. Keep out the immigrants. Keep out the women. Do whatever you have to and claim to be adhering to what your faith demands when those you exclude beg to differ.

This is not humility or servitude. It’s passive aggression and manipulation and it needs to be confronted, even if silencing terms such as “militant secularism” are thrown back in the faces of those who dare to speak out. And to my brother, I am sorry. I am sorry that all those years ago I told on you and that Dad was cross because he didn’t want people at church to know we watched the Kenny Everett Show. You were the better person. I now long for a church with massive hands, stupid puns and Cleo Roccos. A church with sexism that identifies itself as such rather than hiding behind slippery, self-pitying lies.

This post first on Glosswitch's blog here

Marie-Elsa Bragg, Assistant Curate, embraces a collegue after the Church of England's draft legislation approving women bishops failed to pass. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.