Women bishops and secularism

Jim Gilbert examines the Anglican hierarchy's hypocrisy

What is it about priests - at whatever level of the Church of England, the state church - that means they should be men, not women? Nothing, for most Anglicans today. But, according to other devout Christians, bearing a male set of sex organs is essential to becoming a curate or a vicar, let alone a member of a church’s hierarchy, such as a bishop or archbishop. And, of course, among a good number of traditionalists there is also concern how those sex organs are employed: for them, this must only be in monogamous, heterosexual fashion within marriage.[1]

While campaigners against sexual discrimination in the Church of England gained majority congregational (lay) and priestly (clerical) support some years ago, a reactionary rearguard had been able to stave off a fuller victory until recently. The battle against homophobia has even further to go, of course.

Problems have arisen since women were allowed to become ordained as priests. But these are problems wholly to do with efforts of the Church of England’s bureaucracy to keep the Anglican communion together worldwide. In essence, expediency has ruled, permitting women to become priests within the Church of England and North America, thanks to grassroots campaigning, while shying away and foot-dragging on the question of women getting to the higher echelons. That is why it has taken until now to get the church to begin the decision-making process to pave the way for women to become bishops. It was not all over once the ordination of women was permitted.

As amended at the general synod[2] in York on July 10 and 12, an important draft canon law was laid down. It states in its first paragraphs that the synod shall be given powers “to make provision by canon for enabling a woman to be consecrated to the office of bishop if she otherwise satisfies the requirements of canon law as to the persons who may be consecrated as bishops”.[3] The measure now goes to the 43 dioceses for discussion at their individual synods and shall be decided finally in 2012. Diocesan synods can only suggest changes for the general synod to consider, but a majority of them (that is, at least 22) will need to approve it broadly or it will not proceed. Once the general synod gets its hands on the draft again in 2012, the three houses that comprise it must each agree to it by a two-thirds majority for the measure to become fully fledged canon law (if not, the whole process has to start over). If all these hurdles are overcome, the first Church of England woman bishop could be ordained as early as 2014.

Most importantly, for the church bureaucracy, is that the Church of England is accepted as the mother church of the worldwide, 77 million-strong Anglican communion. Trying to tread an illogical and clearly untenable middle line - between having women priests and not having them rise up the hierarchy as bishops - has proved impossible. The traditionalists are implacably against women’s ordination, which is at least consistent and from their point of view logical. As things stand at the moment, of the 38 provinces of the Anglican communion, eight do not ordain women;[4] of the rest, 25 so far only ordain women to the priesthood[5] and four have consecrated women bishops,[6] as has the extra-provincial diocese of Cuba.

Those within the Anglican communion in the USA have led the way on women’s ordination: Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected in 2006 as the first female presiding bishop in Episcopal Church history[7]. The US Episcopalians, with 2.4 million adherents, had also previously consecrated Gene Robinson, Anglicanism’s first openly gay bishop, in 2003. On the other hand, intolerance in the Anglican communion is embodied in such as the most reverend Nicholas Okoh, archbishop of Nigeria, a country where being homosexual can get you 14 years in prison. And, with around 18 million members, the Church of Nigeria is the largest province in the Anglican communion, giving it some weight. Okoh this month applauded a priest who was “speaking out against the invading army of homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual lifestyle under any guise”.[8] Decrying homosexuality as a western import, Okoh was also reported to be alarmed that western churches “had vowed to use their money to spread the homosexual lifestyle in African societies and churches”.[9] He seemed conveniently to have forgotten that Christianity itself was a western import into sub-Saharan Africa.

Over in east Africa, Kenya’s archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi has consecrated as bishops several US Anglican priests who split from the Episcopal Church over its toleration of homosexuality; this was despite his being asked not to do so by Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and overall big cheese in the Anglican communion. To add to Williams’s misery, only a week before general synod voted for the draft canon law to permit women bishops, Dr Jeffrey John, celibate gay dean of St Albans, was rejected as prospective bishop of Southwark. His name being leaked beforehand, ensuring conservatives in the church hierarchy were able to stop his appointment, “seven years after he was forced to stand down as the prospective bishop of Reading following a previous outcry by conservative evangelicals against John’s sexuality”.[10]

However, African Anglican opinion is not an unmitigated reactionary stew. In southern Africa, for example, the issue of women priests is under active consideration: “The right reverend Robert Mumbi, bishop of Luapula and president of the Zambian Anglican Council, reports that calls for a change to the provincial constitution allowing dioceses to ordain women clergy have been made by lay leaders in the province.”[11]

Meanwhile, the Vatican is moving to gain adherents from the Anglican camp. Roman Catholic HQ issued a list of grave crimes - in part to be seen to be doing something about the recent paedophilia scandals. Included in the list was the crime of ‘ordination of women’; much to the delight of its own intransigents and the fury of Roman Catholic reformers, who object to the ordination of women priests being equated with child abuse.[12]

As recently as July 10, so The Daily Telegraph reports, “A group of 70 disgruntled clergy met with a Catholic bishop ... to discuss plans to defect to the Roman Catholic church and hundreds are said to be poised for an exodus to Rome.” Of course, while the long-established Anglo-Catholic contingent among Anglicans could be well catered for within Roman Catholicism, including even married priests, the same cannot be said for evangelical dissidents who object equally to godless gayness and to humans who are not men taking church services.

Idiocy amongst such reactionaries basking in the glow of their prejudices is rife. Many if not all pick bits out of the Bible to justify their opposition to women priests and homosexuality. But the weird ‘purity’ laws of the Old Testament could easily be interpreted to justify almost anything. One example is the god-driven, Nazi-like programme of genocide carried out by Saul, who gets a clear instruction via Samuel direct from heaven: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”[13] When Saul fails to kill the animals, though he dutifully killed all the Amalek people, down to the last “infant and suckling”, godly anger follows and Saul loses his kingship. Are such lessons to be followed today, pope Pius XII aside?

Those trying to find biblical justification for men-only priesthoods are continually grasping at straws. Some even suggest that because the 12 apostles who followed Jesus were all men, so present-day priests should be too. After all, as one Canadian religious website puts it, the original disciples “probably shared nine factors in common. They were: bearded, dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking, married, male, Jewish, residents of Palestine, without much formal education, and the parent of one or more children.”[14] So why pick only one - being male - to determine who can become a priest?

Although facing pretty much an uphill battle at the moment, the movement for women priests among Roman Catholics is far from dead. Despite the threat that anyone who disagrees with the pope is considered to be no longer in ‘full communion’ (one step away from excommunication), even though on this question he is not considered infallible, the Women Can Be Priests organisation has assembled an impressive list of Roman Catholic scholars in favour of the ordination of women.[15]

These and other Christians have the right to believe and worship as they wish and, if that means reforming or splitting their churches, then that is up to them. As communists we have no desire to line up with one religious sect against another. Our aim is to involve religious believers in the fight to fulfil the communist programme by mobilising them in the wider political and economic struggles of the working class. Naturally, that includes the fight for democracy and secularism, and it is under that heading that we demand that the state church in the UK, the Church of England, be disestablished and its wealth taken from it. Buildings that it needs to function religiously can be retained, of courses, but all its other assets must be given up.


  1. For a historical view on the religion-sex interface, see ‘Sex as sacrament’ in R Taylor Sex in history: www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/taylorgr/sxnhst/chap12.htm
  2. The general synod, the governing body of the Church of England, is made up of three houses: bishops, clergy and laity, meeting as one body. Measures have to pass in each house to become part of canon law, which thereby becomes automatically part of UK law.
  3. www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/uploads/gs1708a-amended.html
  4. Central Africa, Jerusalem and the Middle East, Melanesia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, and Tanzania.
  5. Bangladesh, Brazil, Burundi, Central America, England, Hong Kong, North India, South India, Indian Ocean, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, Scotland, Southern Africa, the Sudan, Uganda, Wales, West Africa and the West Indies.
  6. Episcopal Church, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  7. www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_76174_ENG_HTM.htm
  8. See Church of Nigeria website: www.anglican-nig.org/main.php?k_j=12&d=428&p_t=index.php?
  9. www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2010/jul/10071605.html
  10. www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jul/08/rowan-williams-gay-bishop
  11. www.religiousintelligence.org/churchnewspaper/news/women-priests-on-the-agenda-for-central-africa
  12. www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2010/0716/Vatican-stirs-storm-on-women-priests-in-clarifying-law-on-clergy-abuse
  13. 1 Samuel 15-3, The Holy Bible revised version, London 1898.
  14. Women as clergy: The continuing debate, www.religioustolerance.org/femclrg7.htm
  15. www.womenpriests.org/scholars.asp