Women's dignity and the church's tainted love

By Fran Porter
October 15, 2009

The Fawcett Society has called 30 October 'Equal Pay Day' [1]. Launched in 2008 as 'No Pay Day', the date has been chosen because the current gender pay gap means that women effectively receive their last pay cheque at the end of October and work the last two months of the year for free.

Also during October and November 2009, WATCH (Women and the Church) are publishing five articles reflecting on the current proposals for women bishops in the Church of England, in particular exploring the doctrine of 'taint' which is enmeshed in this debate. [2]

For those who argue that opposing women bishops is not about the secular discourse of equality but about the theological discourse of faith, the two issues of the gender pay gap and women’s potential inclusion to the episcopate do not speak to each other. Indeed, it may be possible to support the former while opposing the latter.

The Church of England has excluded its own governance and practice from equality legislation by claiming the Section 19 exemption for organised religions in the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. This means women clergy (deacons and priests) are not covered by the legal employment protections of that Act.

In particular, a Parochial Parish Council (PCC) can advertise for male clergy only to apply for vacancies of incumbent, curate or non-stipendiary minister and may also ban a woman priest from celebrating the Eucharist within parish boundaries. [3]

More generally, the language of equality is not a first language for theology or more specifically theological anthropology; Christian understanding of human beings and how they relate to one another is expressed in language of human personhood created in the image of God more than it is through modern sensibilities of equality. Equality is not irrelevant, but it has a derivative value.

Hence, for Christians, the equality that human beings have with each other comes from their commonality in being creatures of the one Creator. The dignity of each human person comes from our being made in the image of God. Similarly, the inalienable rights which human beings possess without distinction, for Christians, are rooted in the understanding of God as Creator who bestows innate worth on humanity.

Yet this framework of personhood which enables those opposed to women bishops (and women priests) to argue that their position is one of theology and faith (Jesus ordained and gave authority only to men) and not one of secular equality or justice [4], is the same framework in which those who support women’s ordination live and breath.

For while the language of equality and discrimination are used by advocates for women bishops (as it was for women priests), there is also deep concern about what is being said about women’s personhood in the current discussions, particularly highlighted in the doctrine of taint evident in existing restrictions on women’s priesthood and on the proposed conditions for having women bishops.

This powerful notion of taint is seen not only in the refusal of some male priests (and some parishoners) who refuse to take communion from a female celebrant, but in the refusal of some clergy to take communion from their male diocesan bishop because he ordains women. [5]

Such a notion is given structural support though the provision of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (PEVs –‘flying bishops’) who provide episcopal oversight for those male priests who will not accept the authority of a male bishop who has ordained women.

The draft legislation under scrutiny from the General Synod Revision Committee due to report to General Synod in February 2010, includes provision for any male bishop to declare he will not ordain women as bishops and priests, thereby keeping himself unsullied by women.

This provision "introduces the idea of 'taint': that anyone who ordains women as priests or bishops is 'tainted' by those actions and therefore 'unacceptable' to those opposed." It "endorses in law that for many of those opposed it is not sufficient to have the ministry of a male rather than a female bishop, but that the only acceptable bishops are those who have kept themselves separate from their episcopal colleagues in not ordaining women as priests or bishops. This is a powerful declaration of separation." [6]

It is also out of step with a long-established theological principle originating in the fourth century and later expressed in Article 26 of the 39 Articles that "individual qualities of a validly ordained minister or priest (or bishop), do not have any 'affect' on the authenticity of the sacraments administered by that individual" [7] because the authority and authenticity of the orders and sacraments rests in Christ’s commission and not in the character or conduct of the individual person.

Of course, in the case of women bishops, the individual behaviour in question is not one of failing faith in the context of persecution (as in the fourth century Donatist controversies) or a matter of behaviour by evil priests and bishops (as expressed in Article 26), but a matter of embodiment. The notion of taint caused by contact with women is not therefore a matter of faith, character or conduct, but of physical reality, of corporeal existence, of identity and meaning grounded in flesh and blood.

This is a profound statement about women, and not just ordained women – deacons, priests and potential bishops, but about all women in the Church of England, and indeed, throughout the country. As an established church, it is not possible to claim this stance towards women has no bearing on wider society.

The Church has a long history of blaming women, associating them with a suspect carnality that is opposite to divinity and a hindrance to spiritual purity. This is not only a devaluing but a disvaluing of women – ascribing a negative quality to them based on false notions about women – and indeed about men.

The idea that for a man to lay hands on and ordain a woman as priest or bishop is to become tainted is "a totally unacceptable slur on women" [8], and it can have a powerful effect. As Daphne Hampson wrote reflecting on her decision to leave the Church of England in 1981 after being at the forefront of working for women’s ordination, "I think many people have not understood what a priori discrimination – discrimination because of one’s body, or how God has made one – does to one in terms of self-destruction... One of the good things that has happened since I left the church is that I have come to feel good again about my body, and about having been born a woman. I have healed both spiritually and physically." [9]

Can the Church’s view of women simply be a matter of faith as if faith were unrelated to everyday realities? The Church of England paid out £27.1 million to the 441 male priests who left the Church because they could not minister in a church that ordained women.

Clearly, this matter of faith and conscience had economic consequences for men that were recognised by the Church. Which brings us back to 'No Pay Day' on 30 October.

Almost 40 years after equal pay legislation came into force, women in the UK, working full-time, earn on average 17 per cent less per hour than men working full-time. For ethnic minority women, the gap is 20 percent. For women working part-time compared to men working full-time the gap is 36 per cent per hour, rising to 45 per cent in London. [10]

Fawcett identifies three factors which produce this pay gap. Firstly, some employers simply continue to pay women less for doing the same job as men – this may account for up to 40 per cent of the pay gap.

Secondly, work traditionally done by women is still paid less than that done by men, so, for example, a nurse is paid less than a police officer. This gendered labour segregation and accompanying financial difference reflects the lesser value ascribed to women’s contributions and those things with which women are associated.

Thirdly, the UK has one of the longest working hours cultures in the EU. So as long as women shoulder the majority of parenting and caring responsibilities, they are unable to compete in the UK workplace.

"Combine this male breadwinner/female carer divide with the resurgence in objectification and sexualisation of women and judgement of value on the basis of appearance and you have a potent set of stereotypes that influence the entirety of women’s experience in the workplace."

Discrimination, segregation, stereotyping – all factor in to women’s lives. In this context, can we really believe that the focus on women’s femaleness (in contrast to their humanity) and its supposed deficiency within debates about ordaining women, is not joining in the current conversation about women in wider society?

The church is part of the conversation. The question is, what is it saying?



[1] www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/
[2] See www.womenandthechurch.org/preparing.htm
[3] Known as Resolutions B and A respectively of the 1992 Women Priests Measure. There is no parallel provision for a PCC advertising for only female clergy applicants.
[4] See, for example, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4616460.stm.
[5] Hilary Cotton (2009) Women Bishops – The Real Threat, www.womenandthechurch.org/news.htm; Jean Mayland (2009) Walls of Suspicion, Hatred and Taint, www.womenandthechurch.org/preparing.htm.
[6] See Cotton (2009).
[7] Judith Maltby (1998) ‘The Act of Synod and Theological Seriousness’ in Monica Furlong (ed) Act of Synod – Act of Folly, SCM Cantebury Press reproduced at www.womenandthechurch.org/preparing.htm.
[8] See Mayland (2009).
[9] Daphne Hampson (1986) Women, Ordination and the Christian Church, http://www.womenpriests.org/related/hampson.asp.
[10] http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=321.


© Fran Porter is a freelance social and theological researcher, writer and teacher. Her interests are in socially engaged theology and feminist engagement with theology, church culture, biblical studies and hermeneutics. Her two books It Will Not Be Taken Away From Her: A Feminist Engagement with Women's Christian Experience and Changing Women, Changing World: Evangelical Women in Church, Community and Politics are both available through Ekklesia.

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