Women: only as equal as we say you are…

In the news this week is the Church of England’s vote on women bishops, pretty overwhelmingly in favour. However, a big part of the change from last year’s embarrassing vote against was the provisions for those who want no part of women in the episcopate, and how their views will be accommodated.

Now, here is where I hit a problem. Now, I admit that, as a happy little Humanist, my understanding of theology may not be of the best. But, in my simple little mind, I always thought that when it came to religion, it was God’s views that counted.

The way I see it is as follows:
1. Religion is about the Will of God. The rules in any particular religion are their interpretation of the Will of God. Follow the rules, you go to heaven (or equivalent). Disobey and you go to hell (insert appropriate alternate post-mortal destination).
2. God either wants women bishops, or he does not. The two points of view are mutually exclusive.
3. It is therefore the Church’s task to figure out what the Will of God is, and do that.

So, if we have some dioceses, or parishes, refusing the ministry of women bishops, and some accepting it, then by definition, we have some Church of England people who are not obeying the Will of God. In fact, they are setting themselves directly against the Will of God.

OK, the excuse for this is that these people (whichever side is right) are following their own consciences.

However, I was always under the impression that religion was about what God thinks, not what you think…

So then, if we accept that a particular parish, or diocese, can refuse the ministry of a woman, we have a situation where that group of people is saying, effectively, that they think that the Synod is wrong and they are right, about what the Will of God actually is.

So, one of two situations must exist:
1. The Synod in fact has no jurisdiction in the matter of interpreting the Will of God, and such interpretation is up to each individual parishioner. In this case, what is the point of having a Church? If each person has a direct, personal relationship with God, and nobody – be he (or she) never so well-versed in theology – can gainsay the individual’s interpretation of the Will of God, then the Church becomes merely a sort of social club, with singing.
2. The Synod (full of archbishops and that sort of people) actually does have a head start in interpreting the Will of God. In that case, anyone who goes against the Synod’s decision is going against the Will of God as interpreted by the Church of England, and logically, those people ought to either rethink their position (because, as Christians, they are supposed to obey the Will of God, not their own personal prejudices) or find a different religious organisation that is more in tune with their view of the Will of God.

Logically, you cannot have a situation where people who profess to be interpreting and obeying the Will of God allow two contradictory points of view in their organisation, because one of those points of view must be in direct opposition to the Will of God.

Alternatively, one might explain this by saying that this is nothing to do with the Will of God, and everything to do with the personal prejudices of human beings. There is simply no-one with the moral courage to say either “This is the Will of God; take it or leave” or “This is a 21st century church and we are having no more sex discrimination.”

So what we have, apparently, is a situation where a woman can be consecrated as a bishop – but a proportion of the congregation has carte blanche to deny her authority and, indeed, the fact that she is a bishop at all. Simply because she is female.

And if the Church of England allows its adherents to deny the status of one of its bishops, then clearly that ‘bishop’ has no real status at all. What someone can take away from you, after all, is not something that is yours. It is something that you are allowed to hold only so long as others let you.

So although I applaud the decision (half a loaf being better than no bread, and all that), I do not believe that this represents equality. It is not equal if a woman’s status as a bishop can be denied, but not a man’s.

And, in related news, Germany is apparently poised to introduce legislation requiring German companies to give 30% of non-executive board seats to women, from 2016. If these seats cannot be filled by women, then they must remain empty.

Again, this looks like a step forward. However, personally I think it’s a step backwards: “Oh, so you’re on the board. Well, don’t think we have to pay attention to you; you’re only here because we had to have a female, not because you’re qualified. So be a good girl and keep quiet while the men get the work done.”

The problem with quotas is that the people who are given the job can never be quite sure whether they got the job on merit, or because the company had to take what they could find to fill the post. That could have a disastrous effect on the effectiveness of women board members: it is all too easy to ignore someone who is suspected of being a political, rather than a merit, choice. And what of the women themselves? Myself, I would not like to think that I had gained my role because of my gender rather than my abilities. And with a quota in place, no woman will ever be able to be sure that she really deserves her position.

As far as I know, there has been no serious research on why many executive boards are still dominated by men. And without that research, we don’t know the reasons why, and it is impossible to come up with the correct solution to the problem – if it even is a problem. Because all we know is that the numbers aren’t even: we don’t know for sure whether that’s because women are being kept out, or because they simply don’t want to come in.

This brute force approach of mandating a quota that will compel companies to scrabble around trying to find enough women to fill the ‘female seats’ is not true equality. It is saying: “We don’t think you can make it on your own; you won’t succeed unless we make it nice and easy, so we’ll keep out the male candidates so you don’t have any competition.”

Equality is when you make sure there are no barriers to people making the choices they want, and achieving their goals through their own efforts. It is not about a fake equality where you give someone the appearance, but not the reality. That is an expression of the profoundest disrespect, because it denies people the chance to succeed on their own.

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