Earlier this week I went to hear Richard Holloway – retired Bishop of Edinburgh – speak about his new book, Leaving Alexandria, at the Hexham Book Festival. It was a very enjoyable evening, with many moving and challenging moments, but one thing struck me in particular. When he was speaking about the debates surrounding the ordination of women, he described how disturbing the ways in which women were spoken about had been. As had been the case for centuries, women were typically defined as ‘gateways to sin’: men desire us, and so we are the vessels of temptation. Moreover, we are ritually unclean. Women’s ordination – even women in the sanctuary – were often rejected on the grounds of our bodily uncleanliness – we have unclean bodily emissions monthly, and we tempt men into the exchange of unclean bodily fluids.
None of this was new to me, but what struck me was how little we have heard of this in recent years. From a feminist perspective, this kind of thing is rather old hat. And in the church debates, even Forward in Faith and others most opposed to women’s ordination seem to have realised in recent years that this sort of language does them no favours, and so have stopped making quite such offensive remarks.
But these attitudes haven’t gone away just because they’ve gone underground.
Maybe we should revisit some of the language in which the debate over women’s ordination was framed in the very recent past. It shows how widespread these disturbing attitudes were. I suspect that such a view of women underlies much of the ‘gut feeling’ that some people express against women’s ordination, either consciously or subconsciously influencing the theological arguments that are presented. I also suspect that such attitudes underlie those biblical texts that are often cited against women’s ordination – in the ancient Jewish context in which those early Christian communities were formed, after all, women were considered ‘unclean’ during menstruation, after intercourse, after childbirth, and so on.
These issues were named and analysed by Jane Shaw in Act of Synod, Act of Folly? edited by Monica Furlong (SCM, 1998). She pointed out that the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod (the resolution of General Synod that set up ‘flying bishops’) is based on a theology of women’s uncleanliness – what she calls a theology of taint. Women are so unclean that not only is their own ministry rejected, but any male priest or bishop who has laid hands on them in ordination is also deemed polluted. This is why ‘flying bishops’ have been appointed for those who deem their own (male) diocesan bishop to be tainted by association with female clergy. Some have even behaved as if a woman’s priestly presence is so polluting that it defiles a church or altar, refusing to celebrate mass at a church polluted by female ministry.
I suggest that the current demands for structural ‘provision’, ‘safeguards’ or ‘protection’ for those who don’t accept that the ordination of women is a valid development stem from just such a theology of taint. It is now dressed up in words like ‘communion’, and people pretend that the ministry of male bishops who ordain women is unacceptable because they aren’t fully orthodox on this matter. But the church has never, ever allowed people to pick their own bishop based on whether they agree with them about everything. Even if this is about theological rectitude rather than the female ‘Ick-factor’, it is telling that it is opinions about women that are the one thing that the church is prepared to make an exception for. Believe what you like about virtually anything, but if you think that women are acceptable to God and the church as ordained ministers, you are tainted.
Don’t tell me that’s not sexism.