THE COMMENTARY

Whine, Women and Wrong

"SEXUAL APARTHEID" - "the Stained -Glass Ceiling" - "Harassment and Abuse of Women Priests"

The headlines abounded as the feminist lobby took to the media last month to launch their latest attack on the Church of England and the wicked and oppressive patriarchy which it fosters.

The occasion for this furious assault was the publication of a 200 page monograph from the Theology Department of Bristol University entitled, "The Journey to Priesthood" - an in -depth study of the first women priests in the Church of England. The author, Dr Helen Thorne, a thirtysomething executive for a Christian charity and the launch pad - the Reverend Clare Herbert's church of St Anne's in Soho.

Determined not to go the easy route, i.e. recycle and answer the press stories, I sent for the document itself. This duly arrived with a flyer inviting me to investigate other monographs in the series with scarcely resistible titles like, " God's Mother, Eve's Advocate . A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigary." After reading this report I shall not be taking up the kind offer. A week with Dr Thorne has taken its toll. One evening my son had to wake me up three times so deeply resistant was my incurable patriarchal consciousness to Dr Thorne's blitzkrieg of gender politics.

The introduction and the first couple of chapters on the history of the movement and the feminist context in which the debate took place are what you would expect. The summary of contrary argument is reductionist and knock down. The famous liberal creation, the theology of "taint", gets an outing though, to her credit and unlike many of her co-religionists, she avoids laying it specifically at the door of her opponents. She asserts, without evidence, that opposition to the Act of Synod is growing. This is a tactic beloved of well-organised lobby groups and it worked very well in 1992. A relatively small number of militants make a sudden and a fearful noise and everybody panics thinking that there is a whole freaking army out there. It's entirely biblical. Gideon patented it in Judges 7 and, yes, it works as well as it ever did. But that shouldn't stop us from asking the question as to whether noise is evidence. For, on the same page, Dr Thorne warns her readers that, "far from disappearing, opposition to women's ministry is well organised, vocal and growing." Assuming she did not intend to lie about the traditionalist position and meant "opposition to the priesting of women", this is a significant giveaway and demonstrably true. The number of parishes opting for alternative episcopal oversight continues to grow. Those who have passed "A" or "B" are an even larger number. Parishes who have had a woman and now feel they would like a change are a pastoral problem for bishops with lots of spare women priests waiting to be placed.

Doctor Thorne will also have noticed that while many bishops personally loathe the Act of Synod and make its working as difficult as possible, they are unlikely to rush to ditch it as its existence enables them to use us as the last defence against the logical consequences of their ill-considered actions since 1992. In short they would have to accept women into their "club" and, by and large, a particular sort of highly politicised women too.

Like Dr Thorne I have little time for those who operate the politics of convenience and elevate hypocrisy to a theological virtue, but she seems unable to distinguish between this and sincerely held beliefs. We are all, apparently, the victims of patriarchy and the ensuing false consciousness.

Those who believed that 1992 was all about permissive legislation to allow bishops and parishes to do this unbiblical thing will be blown away by this volume. There is no room for the other view - permissive must become compulsory.

By chapters four and five the gloves are fully off and we are in full feminist flow. Methodology and research reveals feminists dislike of facts and figures - quantitative methods apparently playing into the hands of a "masculine style of control and manipulation". Experiences, feelings, perceptions (qualitative) are much more likely to produce the realities in which feminists deal. Anybody who has researched cult mechanisms or even peer group pressure will be aware of how easy it is to produce and reinforce common feelings and perceptions which have little basis in objective fact.

So, for this report, over 1200 women filled in questionnaires and 29 were interviewed. Their "evidence" was necessarily subjective and not open to correction, affirmation or criticism by anyone else participating in that experience. A woman who felt herself oppressed by a male colleague was so. A woman who went for a large number of jobs without getting them knew that this was because she was a woman. We have no way of knowing if she was a good candidate or an incompetent, a neurotic or the possessor of damning references from those with experience of her ministry. She might like to know that, in the greatly altered circumstances of recent years, a large number of men are also enjoying the experience of multiple rejection.

Of course Doctor Thorne is honest about the way she handles her data. Feminism rejects the idea of objective value - free research. This old way (facts and figures) led to inevitable sex - bias in research, "a bias that is so intrinsic that it is almost invisible". Quite so.

The feminist researcher, we are told, is a component in the research and we are left in little doubt about Dr Thorne's thoughts, feelings and interpretations of her evidence - some of which, being quantitative, we scarcely need to see. We are treated to extracts from her diary and musings and her approval or disapproval of her sisters experience. Take this, for example.

A woman priest writes,

"I have an understanding sympathetic nature. I am in no way a pushy or bullying person. I have never been a militant women minister. I have never experienced aggro or the woes of women priests - often because they are too domineering (feeling threatened?), too bossy, too aggressive to male colleagues (feeling inferior?) - too competitive with colleagues. I had to resign from one post because I could not stand a woman colleague who was all of those things. Finally I have had the good fortune to work with male colleagues who have been good to work with."

Doctor Thorne is not a happy bunny. She can scarcely contain her rage at such betrayal. She writes,

"It is painful to hear women disassociating themselves from the feminist struggle and aligning themselves with patriarchy in a scathing parody of "Women's Lib. It is also harrowing to hear women oppress women.... and watch as they turn their backs on feminism - their opportunity for freedom."

Well she did warn us that objectivity was no part of the feminist brief. Did the unfortunate woman really have a good experience of men and a bad experience of women? We are in no doubt that she shouldn't have.

We are given some statistics which are helpful and, on the whole unsurprising. The older and more evangelical the woman priest the less obsessed she is with inclusive language and the less favourable she is to feminism. With a very un-Catholic doctrine of priesthood and an ecclesiology and doctrine of headship that is largely local, it is quite possible for many evangelical women to hold the assistant Minister/ manager role without being too distressed by sexual politics.

Formerly catholic women have had, of course, to ditch their understanding of all three doctrines to pursue their cause and are scarcely far behind their liberal sisters on the language and feminism issue. What is fascinating is that, even so, only an average 25 percent of women priests expressed themselves as a broadly positive to feminism. The rest seem blithely unaware that their very existence is a triumph not for Christian doctrine but for the very doctrine they appear to reject. Doctor Thorne is understandably less than thrilled by their ingratitude and believes that they must be encouraged and led to be deconstruct the Church of which they are a part.

We are given a view of the marital status of women priests. Just over half are married, 35 per cent single, six per cent widowed, five per cent divorced. This is a self description and may disguise a higher divorced figure as some women reject the term and call themselves "single". The degree of singleness is also somewhat confused as it covers all those "in a committed relationship but not married". We have no idea of the size of this category or its relationship to the commitment to feminism.

We see that only 17 per cent of the whole group have a primary child care responsibility and, it turns out, that is not easy. Parishes don't cope well with the vicar having several months maternity leave - never mind regularly. Being a wife and mother seems to conflict all too often with church duties. This causes guilt, stress and burn out.

"I always felt guilty. I felt I should be with my son or be working."

"I don't think small children should have to put up with the constant interruptions of home life in the parish ministry."

"I don't think you can do two jobs well simultaneously... without having a nanny."

To anyone with five-minutes experience of family life these overwhelming conclusions will not come as any great surprise. But I can remember being howled down at successive Deanery Synod debates around the diocese in 1992 for even suggesting that such problems were inevitable and needed addressing.

The answer, you will not be surprised to know, is not that the sisterhood miscalculated, as they have so regularly in their demolition of family life, but that the priesthood, the ministry, the Church must change to accommodate their theories.

"We need new models of priesthood that are less parental and more facilitative."

We learn, again and unastonishingly, that women priests married to priests find it difficult to get a job without working and living elsewhere and their career prospects are correspondingly blighted. I have to observe, from my own limited experience, that this is not always the case and some women have swept into positions of influence at a speed of which their husbands can only dream.

Where there is no parochial role for women they are put in to chaplaincies at an alarming rate. This is politically very advantageous, for a hospital or college chaplain has disproportionate influence on the wider community for the time spent with a person. It is questionable whether male candidates for chaplaincy get fair backing from dioceses desperately anxious to place substantial numbers of "unwanted" women. Over 200 women in this sample( 17 per cent ) are in chaplaincies.

Doctor Thorne complains that her figures reveal women are on the slow track to promotion. Well, given the theological idiocy of the measure they supported which detached episcopacy and priesthood, there was always going to be a specific problem. However Dr Thorne's complaints seem rather threadbare when you discover that 10 per cent of these women have diocesan jobs! What is increasingly apparent, though not part of Dr Thornes brief, is the disproportionate influence these political appointees have on diocesan policy and how it then becomes virtually impossible to make male appointments who are not fellow travellers. Whether she is aware that a majority of English dioceses cheat on the Act of Synod in her favour and operate total exclusion policies on appointing Orthodox priests to any position of diocesan authority is unclear. But we are in no doubt that she would approve of such policy.

She reminds us that,

"Forward in Faith... has not been given enough attention and condemnation."

"Forward in Faith are "stepping up their subversion of women's ministry"

And, wait for it,

"Forward in Faith are actively recruiting ordinands."

The swine!

Clearly the doctrine of reception is not a hit with Dr Thorne. And so it goes on.

What is curious about all this is that it paints a very very unhappy picture. Why should this be? After all - they won, didn't they? And following on their victory they were ordained without question or any rigorous assessment that would have been applied to male candidates.

Bishops and Archdeacons flogged around their dioceses trying to persuade every vacant parish to take one of these newly ordained women. Orthodox parishes with no curates watched helplessly as small liberal parishes got one or sometimes two curates provided they were female. Orthodox men ceased to be considered for office. Those in office seemed required by collegiality to take a vow of silence. The bench was loaded with unforgivably poor candidates whose sole common qualification was enthusiasm for the novelty. Women priests became the defining principle of Anglicanism. Institutionally it became less damaging to deny the Virgin birth than to question the theological validity of women's orders. So, they won. But happy? I'm afraid not.

An unkind person would say that if you put unhappy people in ,you get a unhappy people out. Anyone who was involved in the 1992 run up cannot fail to have noticed the disturbing number of advocates whose psychological profile ought to have rung alarm bells with Directors of Ordinands.

A more theological reflection would suggest that putting people in a situation that they don't fit is frankly cruel and iniquitous and how pleased many of the Liberal hierarchs were to use these women as emotional battering rams to radicalise their own dioceses and embarrass opponents into surrender. How many actually like the women priests they have ordained is a far more telling question and Dr. Thorne's survey suggest that they have not received much kindness from their patrons. Indeed newspaper reports on the study and on the press conference majored on how badly these women were treated. What, of course, Doctor Thorne and the sisters cannot admit is that it is not by us! As we do not work with them and are, I believe, courteous to them whenever we meet at deanery events etc, the bulk of complaint about day-to-day treatment is levelled against those who voted for them and persuaded their parishes to have a woman priest. The significance of this revelation cannot be overstated.

There is talk also of harassment. Well, bad treatment of male curates is not unknown and it is equally unacceptable but harassment, in the feminist language, often covers a multitude of innocence. A young male priest of my acquaintance was subject, during his curacy, to regular attempted sexual assaults by his married vicar. On complaining to his bishop he was moved, blacklisted and subsequently exported. The errant vicar who, it turned out, did this to it every curate carried on until retirement covered with diocesan jobs and honours. The bishop, it transpired, enjoyed the same hobbies. Male or female that is harassment and assault and it is a police matter.

A few months ago I was at a lecture day for feminists and, after a discussion group, a rather highly strung woman priest started angrily attacking another male participant about his views. Attempting to defuse this outburst he tried to explain but, in the course of this, he smiled and touched her arm reassuringly, he thought. The great cry of "harassment" went up. Mercifully for him it was in a room full of people but ...

This is all part of the victim mentality which is part of the given of feminism. The solidarity of the sisterhood under patriarchal oppression was an exciting business and they miss it. Ironically it is now the traditionalists that enjoy the wartime fellowship of the oppressed and, on the whole, do it with considerable joy and humour. The non politicised women who were convinced that opposition would just melt away were hopeful and naive. They assumed that experiencing what nice people they were would fatally undermine our beliefs in the doctrines of the incarnation and creation and our desire to be obedient to the Word of God. To be offended or hurt when social embarrassment or episcopal disapproval fails to dent deeply held principles and beliefs is to elevate sensitivity to neuroses.

It follows then, that even in victory, they must reconstruct this image and sense of oppression in order to mobilise for further victories. These victories, in the eyes of the feminists, are nothing less than the total deconstruction of the Catholic Church. Those who went along with this development hoping that it would bring peace and concord were gravely and deliberately deceived. Feminism, as volumes like this demonstrate, is a religion in itself and is nothing less than a rewrite of everything.

The Church of England has been a willing and naive victim of this bastard daughter of Marxism with its manufactured oppressed class, dismissal of opposition as a false consciousness, emotional tyrannies and hatreds mainly men and children) eating away at the fabric of communion and family life.

It would be cheering to think that even one bishop might read this volume and see that what he has welcomed into the Church is not a genuine renewal movement but a hostile cult.

They advertised it as a New Jerusalem but, in reality, it's more like Old Beirut.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's

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