2016: Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, delivers the ninth annual Theos lecture
Women bishops, reason and revelation
22nd November 2012
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That the General Synod’s vote against women bishops this week was a bitter disappointment for many and a depressing end to Rowan Williams’ time at Lambeth, is not in doubt. It wasn’t a PR disaster because it could never have been a PR triumph: ‘Church finally accepts women into senior positions of authority’ was never going to woo a sceptical public. The decision will confirm many people’s opinion of the church rather than change it.
Storm clouds gathered immediately, some more likely to burst than others: this will hasten calls for disestablishment (unlikely); this will put pressure on the Church’s equality exemption (possible); this will undermine the Church’s campaign against gay marriage (certain).
Whether or not there are any such concrete consequences, the longer-term fallout is more subtle and pervasive. For a society that prides itself on its liberal tolerance, contemporary Britain is nervous about groups or institutions (ugh) organising themselves according to their own commitments and values. All too readily, we take the principle “one law for all” (true) and use it to justify the conclusion “all organisations must adopt the same structures and practices” (untrue). The church’s decision to maintain structures of governance that are in tension with society’s understanding of what is just, will merely reinforce public scepticism that it, like other institutions, should have no right to do so.
In that regard – but only in that regard – the Synod was right to reject women bishops: the Church should not do things in a particular way because current social mores say things need to be done in that way. Institutions in a free society should be able to order their arrangements according to their values and principles within certain limits (although what precisely comprise those limits is endlessly debated and debateable). If the Church should have accepted women bishops (which, in my humble opinion, it should) it should have done so according to its own logic. And therein lies the problem.
Why is it that (according to some, at least) women should not be in a position of authority over men? Yes, there are a handful of biblical verses that can be quoted to support this position but using those, especially while ignoring or downplaying others, can seem somewhat arbitrary and question begging. What is the reason for this view?
It is, of course, wrong to think that, in such matters, reason works like entirely neutral and objective algorithm for discerning right from wrong, a device untarnished by anything as slippery as someone’s vision of the good. But it is also wrong to imagine that a verse of holy writ can be adhered to without at least some semblance of explanatory scaffolding. The relationship between revelation and reason might be a contested and problematic one but it would be foolish to sue for a divorce.
The example of the Sabbath is instructive here. On the surface, this is an arbitrary, backward and even oppressive teaching: why shouldn’t I be allowed to shop where I want when I want; I’m an adult, etc. etc. etc. Dig a bit deeper, however, you can find the ‘inner logic’ of the teaching. Without a collective day off (which cannot be secured other than by some measure of legislation) society suffers: family time becomes squeezed, workers suffer unreasonable demands, large shops out-compete small ones, local commercial infrastructure, and with it community, erodes. Transfixed as we are by the idea of individual autonomy, we become blind to the fact that a rest-less society is worse for us, even if it feels better for me.
Such reasoning, you will note, is not foolproof; it does not go all the way down, as it were, but, rather, rests on certain axioms, such as that humans have an innate dignity that cannot be sacrificed for the sake of commercial freedom, or that our flourishing is dependent not only on personal freedom but also on the range and depth of our relationships which sometimes need to be protected from our exercise of personal freedom. Those who disagree with such premises (such as libertarians, utilitarians, or some socialists) will disagree with the conclusion. That, however, is not a problem. Such reasoning is not intended to convert sceptics, so much as to explain the revelation to which it is attached.
The problem with the case against women bishops (coming full circle) is that there is no such explanatory reasoning, or at least none that I have heard. Beyond the simple assertion that God believes one sex should not have authority over another, there is no explanation offered, no reason attached. Why should women not exercise authority over men? Just because. For the godly, faithful, intelligent, erudite, gifted woman, so obviously capable of exercising authority, and for their many, many supporters, this is a hard message to swallow.
The Archbishop of York has said that he believes there will be women bishops in his lifetime. We will see this debate again. Let’s hope for a more reasonable result next time.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick