Tuesday, 31 March 2009

What they are saying about the Church of England

'Read our shocking report.'

That's how the editor of Stella, the Sunday Telegraph's magazine for women introduces her main feature article, 'The Stained-Glass Ceiling'.

The contents listing adds: 'Stephanie Rafanelli finds that sexism is still rife in the Church of England, with one female priest telling her, "My only choice is to leave my parish or have a nervous breakdown."'

As part of my role, I do get to hear some horror stories, but I was still surprised by this. So what's it all about?

The trigger for the article is the recent decision by General Synod to take another step forward towards women bishops. 'So does equality reign among the clergy? Far from it.' The article starts by focusing on Rosie Woodall, an ordinand at Cuddesdon. She is aware that she is part of a new generation of women who will be ordained into a church where women bishops is a real possibility. Yet 'being a woman priest is still going to be a challenge'.

The article cites the fact that more than 1.000 parishes have passed resolutions which allow them to 'opt out' of having a woman priest, and quotes Christina Rees: 'The Church is institutionally sexist.... if you substituted the word "black" for the word "woman" you simply wouldn't be allowed to say these things.'

Also interviewed are Nerissa Jones, Lucy Winkett, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Viv Faull, and a woman whose name has been changed, Rebecca, who has experienced bullying and 'constant low-grade sexual harassment'.

All depressing stuff. The piece ends with some words from Lucy Winkett about the potential of Christianity to be a force for women's liberation around the world (as it has been in many places), and expressing hope that this can be - but that the Church needs to put its own house in order first.

A pretty one-sided view in my opinion, despite the truth behind some of what is said. OK, we can use the word discrimination, but there was no acknowedgement of theology.

But as the view of someone outside the Church, it is salutory. Do we expect people to understand our nuanced theology? Or do they legitimately write us off as sexist and discriminatory?

If this is what people think of us, no wonder evangelism is an uphill struggle. Fifteen years ago I wrote a booklet about the challenges feminism was posing to the church - and how we might respond. Now what was 'feminism' is a mainstream view.

I don't like the tone of this article, but much of what lies behind it is sadly true. How do we put our house in order and proclaim a gospel not of discrimination but of equality?

Just when I think we are making progress, I realise how far there is to go before I will see my dream fulfilled. How long, O Lord?

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