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The feminist case against women bishops

The feminist case against women bishops

By Susie Leafe
The Times
November 19 2012

Men and women are equal but different. I pray the Church of England will respect this.

The question of whether women should become bishops can be boiled down to one word: equality. And it is because I believe in equality that I am against women becoming bishops.

Opponents of women bishops in the Church of England are often dismissed as being incurably dusty and out of date. That in 2012 - 12 years into the third millennium - this issue is being argued about is taken as proof that the Church is hopelessly behind the curve.

But if you listen more carefully to the debate, you will find that opponents of women bishops are asking some very urgently modern questions - how, for instance, can equality ever really allow diversity?

I consider myself to be a radical feminist. It is not the feminism of my grandmother, who was a doctor in the 1930s, nor that of my mother; it is the radical feminism of my generation. But my idea of equality is very different from the conventional, secular version.

Over recent decades we have grown used to seeing equality in terms of the State legislating to protect individual rights. The State, we are told, is there to ensure that everyone is treated in the same way. Individuals are considered equal when they are offered the same job or pay. Quotas are encouraged in our workplaces and universities and when they are fulfilled we are told that "equality" has been achieved.

This "outcome" view of equality is so prevalent that to question it is heresy. That is surely a mistake: 65 years ago, George Orwell recognised that often when the authorities claim that they are acting in the interests of "equality" it is usually little more than a thinly veiled attempt to establish the supremacy of one factional interest over all others. So we need a healthy dose of Orwellian scepticism, and toleration of dissenting opinions, when we debate tomorrow the issue of women bishops.

The "outcome" view of equality is at odds with how the Bible and the Church have traditionally regarded equality. This Christian equality stems not from what we do but from what God has done for us; God created each one of us and Christ paid the same price for each one of us, without regard to our status. The consequence is that we are freed for a life of discipleship patterned after the example of Christ, in which we regard each other as equally precious and exist to serve one another. In this context of mutual servant-heartedness, to describe one human being as more or less equal than any other is absurd. Our value is found in Christ, not in our role within the church or world.

This kind of equality allows us truly to celebrate diversity - to acknowledge, for example, that men and women are different and that those differences are good and a matter of divine design, not merely a social construct. The Bible teaches men and women are equal but not interchangeable. They complement one another because they are different and should be valued accordingly.

In marriage, the family and in God's family, the Church, men and women are called to serve alongside one another, sacrificing themselves for the good of the other. For men this self-sacrifice shows itself in being prepared to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of his wife, family and church. That is why I believe that only men can serve as bishops, shouldering the greatest responsibility for the direction of the Church. And it is also why I believe that women's role at church and in the family is to offer loving, self-sacrificial support.

That does not mean that I think compliant "little women" should be kept out of the office or politics. Of course, women of talent should become CEOs or politicians, but in the sphere of church and the family, our role is different from that of men.

I am not alone in thinking this. In May, I and 12 other women members of the Synod started a petition to ensure that our voice was not smothered by the blanket assumption that all women think the same; 2,228 women churchgoers joined us in signing it.

I pray the Church of England does not vote for female bishops tomorrow. I hope that it will not dismiss one view of equality that truly allows diversity to thrive. If the Church tries to legislate its way to equality, I fear some will end up being more equal than others.

Susie Leafe, from Truro diocese, is a member of the General Synod

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