The muddled iconography of women bishops

Carolyn Moynihan
22 July 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Last week, while the Church of England was deciding to ordain women bishops, Marvel Comics promised one of its leading characters a sex change. The Mighty Thor is about to come out as female. Are these two moves connected? Are they a great leap forward for humanity, or a reckless leap into the dark?

Both decisions can be traced to the 20th century credo that girls can do anything and therefore must be allowed to enter every occupation and rise to the top, preferably in equal numbers. That there would be female Anglican bishops was a foregone conclusion the day the first woman priests were ordained, which was, in some parts of the Anglican communion, back in the 1970s.

By contrast, the Thor move seems a bolt from the blue. The Washington Post notes : "We've seen female heroes taking over for male heroes before, but has it ever been a mantle this big? Thor is royalty at Marvel - within the pages of the comics and in the halls of Marvel editors." Marvel has leapt ahead of the church by creating the equivalent of a female Archbishop of Canterbury, or even a pope - if only the Anglicans had one.

Fanboys are peeved, but Marvel editor Axel Alonso promised when he took over to make its universe as diverse as its readership, and female readership has become a force in the comic-book industry.

In the church, women have always occupied more pews, so the diversity argument is even stronger in the ecclesiastical context. All clerical orders will now reflect the diversity of membership.

"I'm delighted to see women finally able to exercise their gifts within the Anglican Church's highest positions of leadership," wrote Jemima Thackray in The Telegraph . And Tom Sutcliffe, a member of the Church of England synod who opposed women bishops in 2012 but voted for them this time, told the Guardian that it would bring an "episcopal femininity" that would enrich the church.

But will it? After 40 years of female priests and more recently some bishops, there's little sign of a distinctly feminine transformation yet.

The ladies are still turning out in unfeminine clerical collars and cumbersome liturgical robes. Admittedly, they have enhanced the latter with attractive designs, but their everyday public image is that of women dressed up as men, and doing tiresome manly work like asserting their authority over church affairs -- as Christchurch (New Zealand) Bishop Victoria Matthews has had to do in a long drawn out argument over the fate of the earthquake-damaged Christchurch Cathedral.

It is difficult to shake off the impression that priesthood does not suit women, that they were not meant for each other. And there are good reasons why this is so.

No reasonable person disputes that women are able to do the "job" of an Anglican bishop: the liturgical role, preaching, teaching, administration, sitting in the House of Lords - whatever it takes. Of course they can. The objections have always been theological: for evangelicals, the teaching of St Paul about the headship of men over women; for Anglo-Catholics, breaking with the 2000-year-old tradition going back to Christ himself, who called only men to form the foundation of his church - a break which would put paid to eventual reunion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Coming from a Catholic perspective, my understanding is that the sacramental character of the priest as an icon of Christ is the heart of the matter. According to St Paul the church is the body of Christ, who is its Spouse and Head. There's a whole cluster of anthropological and theological concepts at work in this aspect of Pauline theology (and other parts of the Bible) which would take a book to tease out, but they boil down to the fact that the whole church, men and women, is feminine (receptive) in relation to Christ, and that the priest in his key sacramental role represents Christ, who gives his whole life for and to her.

Anglicans, of course, are free to write the rules for their own church. However, they ought to be confident that this theological tradition is not arbitrary, but reflects the biological and metaphysical reality of the sexes.

Generally speaking, women have a natural talent for the tasks related to the physical and emotional care of the person which comes with their capacity for motherhood. Men's special talents tend to lie in the field of analysis, technical creativity, use of natural resources, and the ordering of society - for the sake of the small society which is the family.

This view of things is, of course, a heresy deserving of burning at the stake in a society where feminism and gender theory hold sway, but Christianity has always taken the body seriously and this helps to explain why the priesthood has always been male. It makes good human sense as well as theological sense and I think conservative Anglicans are right to hold out for it.

To repeat, it is not that women are incapable of masculine virtues and roles, or that men cannot exercise the feminine strengths. They can and they do. What's important is that both the masculine and the feminine tasks get done, and the most rational way of guaranteeing that seems to be for men and women to specialise to some degree in what comes naturally to them.

In this way, perhaps, both women and men get to be "icons" of Christ, without the necessity for ordination, as they represent and give witness to different aspects of his love for the human being.

Mind you, men can hardly match women in terms of self-sacrifice, the most noble of human virtues. Motherhood, the vocation of all women in one way or another, is a call to give oneself completely, in terms of personality, time, effort and one's very body. For Christian women it is a sharing in the total self-giving of Christ.

By this measure women have always had the "top job" in the church open to them. Ordaining women simply muddles the iconography of the sexes and robs men of a vocation which, when allowed its full strength, allows them to be as self-sacrificing as their sisters.

I feel that this is a theological reflection which needs further study. The argument for women priests and bishops is that it makes them equal to men. The truth is that the priesthood makes it possible for men to be equal to women.

Today secular society replaces The Mighty Thor with a female surrogate; tomorrow she will be thrown out for something else. It doesn't matter. But tampering with deep religious and human traditions is a leap in the dark, or rather, a leap which darkens our understanding of human destiny. Unfortunately the darkness just got a little more profound in the Anglican Church.