Faith and Reason: Is patriarchy just a man-made thing?: Andrew Brown takes issue with Carolyn Butler on feminism in the Church: the start of a series that will run until the General Synod votes on the matter in November
Saturday 26 September 1992
This acrimony is actually the only thing that makes it interesting: English Christians do not normally conduct themselves like that. Yet on this one question it seems that reasonableness has quite deserted them. This may be because there are no respectable arguments on either side: anyone who has followed closely the debates in general synod must concede this possibility. But let us be charitable and suppose the problem is that the good arguments are too huge to articulate.
As things now stand, one argument above all is likely to decide the vote. In essence, it claims that patriarchy is God-given. This is the only belief which unites all the irreconcilable opponents of the measure: those who claim that, though women may be prime ministers and choose bishops, they cannot be priests; and those who claim that, though priesthood is meaningless and bishops superfluous, women cannot be elevated to authority over men.
Patriarchy is what underlies the difficulties that some evangelicals have with the Pauline texts about 'headship'. Patriarchy explains the wonderfully silly things which elderly bishops are prone to come up with when explaining precisely what it was that God did to a passive or feminine creation which makes it impossible for priests, as representatives of God, to be women. And for most readers of the Independent it is quite impossible to take seriously.
That is probably because we have not thought through the implications of feminism. It has simply overwhelmed the English middle classes, and changed them so greatly that they cannot see how greatly they have been changed.
Because most feminism is polite, it can appear some feminism is not radical. It is in the interests of both the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) and Mr John Gummer to pretend that there is a thing called 'radical feminism' which can be distinguished from the sort you would have to tea, or permit your wife to entertain. But the distinction may be nonsensical. The overthrow of patriarchy may be an act as irreversible as the overthrow of the Stuarts.
The analogy holds in the Church with alarming accuracy. The Gummerite opponents of women priests would deny that a woman in a dog-collar is a priest just as to Charles I, King and Martyr, our constitutional monarchy would seem a sort of blasphemy.
To argue that patriarchy is the principle at issue it is necessary to ignore all other arguments. I think this is fair, in the context of the Anglican debate: there are undoubtedly some arguments against the ordination of women that depend on ecumenical considerations, for instance, but they are held by minorities so small as not to matter politically.
You could not muster a third of the General Synod against some policy just because it is distressing to the Pope and the Oecumenical patriarch. Equally, there are some arguments against women priests which depend entirely on the arguer being a homosexual in ambiguous circumstances. But they would not attract a majority in General Synod. (And such ad hominem arguments are nicely balanced by the number of deacons who cannot be priests because they are lesbians.)
What is interesting about the arguments which are left is that they are so dazzlingly irrational. That is what persuades me that they have an authentic religious charge. The philosopher and priest John Bowker has frequently pointed out that the religions are important as systems, in an information-theory sense, which means they are anything but systematic. You cannot tell which beliefs have what effect. All come as a tangle.
In fact one might argue that it is the function of religion to tangle our deepest impulses with our most trivial acts, and knot together philosophy with morality. So when Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London, asserts that the Creator is essentially active and masculine, and Creation essentially passive and feminine, and that this proves women cannot be Christian priests, he must be considered as defending a moral position.
The position that comes, irresistibly, to mind, is one from the Kama Sutra, involving an old man with a beard. But that cannot be what the bishop meant.
Similarly, when Evangelicals quote proof texts from St Paul to show that women cannot hold 'leadership positions' in Church, they are not doing this to uphold a fundamentalist view of scripture. They do not demand complete silence from hatted women in Church. Few Anglicans can take seriously Paul as the great milliner. Few demand that Dr Christina Baxter be hounded from her post at St John's Theological College in Nottingham because she exercises authority over the students there.
Nor is it easy to take seriously the people who claim that we should not be confused by any superficial similarity between the eventual condemnation of slavery by the churches, and their possible condemnation of patriarchy. Slavery, Dr Roger Beckwith argues, was a human invention, whereas patriarchy is divinely instituted. He does not explain how one is supposed to distinguish divine patriarchy from the man-made sort.
But if we translate these arguments into something like their moral analogues, it is possible to see what the defenders of patriarchy feel they are defending. They stand, it seems to me, for an idea of ordered family life, of decency, and of the assurance of supernatural help in behaving with the supernatural forbearance required of anyone married, and of any parent. Feminism, rebellion, and selfishness form a knot in their minds.
The great advantage of patriarchy, in this scheme of things, is not that it means that women know their place, but that it means men do.
It is obvious, looking round the world from Robert Bly to Neil Lyndon, that men who feel they have lost their place turn into wild and desperate viragos; and that they have cause to do so. The rest of the world is just moving into something that might be called the post-feminist era. Can we really blame the Church of England for hanging back from the turmoil ahead as it approaches feminism?
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