Methodist Central Hall, London. The debate venue.

The week from 17 March saw the inauguration of both the new Pope, Pope Francis, and the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. To mark that historic occasion the BBC broadcast a debate entitled Christianity at the Crossroads. The panellists were: Matthew Parris (MP) – former Conservative MP; Dr Anna Rowlands (AR) – Catholic theologian; Rev Canon Dr Sam Wells (SW) – Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields; and Sarah Dunant (SD) – author. John Humphreys (JH) was the chairman.

I really enjoyed this debate, particularly that participants were open in expressing their views on the discussed topics. In general, they didn’t appear constrained by the institutions of which they were a part, a stark contrast to broadcasts I’ve heard in which the LDS church is represented, where the representative generally comes across as both defensive and evasive. The debate ranged over whether Christianity is indeed at a crossroads or in crisis: whether the churches have lost moral authority in society; the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church; the churches as communities of the imperfect; growth of the RC Church in Africa and Latin America; celibacy of Roman Catholic clergy; women and the priesthood; humanism, secular society and faith. In this post I will highlighting the discussion on women and the priesthood.

I was struck by the similarities in the arguments used about women and the priesthood with those I have come across recently in the LDS church. I also thought some of the participants made some important points, that I haven’t particularly seen addressed. I enjoyed the wider view, the context of these debates with those of other denominations. This last general conference was for me, contradictory. We saw women saying both an opening and closing prayer, and that was wonderful. On the other hand, the content of some of the talks seemed to be particularly regressive when it came to addressing the roles of men and women. There are no women ordained to the Priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and whilst the Church of England ordains women as Deacons and Priests, a proposal for women Bishops failed to pass during a vote last November.

In addition to the panel, audience members Jacques Moreau (JM) of Opus Dei; Pete Myers (PM) of the Church Society, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin (RHW) – Speaker’s Chaplain and vicar in Hackney, and Rev Canon Rosie Harper (RH) – vicar in Great Missenden and Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham were contributed their views.

I’ll start the transcript a little earlier, to give context to the start of the discussion. My commentary is in the square brackets.

JM: One little thing to show the church isn’t dying is the amount of interest that has been caused by the papal transition, with 6000 journalists there. That’s one thing. The other thing is that the church, the Catholic church, which is the one I know, isn’t. The church itself is growing overall in the world both in absolute terms and in percentage terms, and is growing mostly in the countries that are growing. The church is declining in Europe but it’s growing in Africa, it’s growing in Asia, it’s growing in South America. So I think the picture is much larger than we’ve seen.

SD: … when Jacques says the Catholic church is growing, well actually it’s growing in countries where they have yet to ask deeper questions about the roles of women, about what happens when women would like to be taken more seriously. It’s growing where, actually, it’s going to be easy for it to grow until they hit exactly the same problems that Europe and the West has hit. Where there are versions of what personal freedom and personal identity means. And some of that means the rights of women, and some of that means the rights of priests to possibly be married and have normal families which help them connect better with their parishioners.

[I think Sarah Dunant makes a good point. I’ve seen a fair amount about growth of the church in South America and then Africa over the years. Is she right in supposing that those countries will hit those problems in the future? Should the LDS church be addressing the issues of women more strongly? What are the benefits or losses of either acting now, or waiting?]

Funnily enough, the campaign colour was purple too.

JH: Sam, women Bishops. You knew we were going to come to that didn’t you. So, women Bishops in your church, how serious a blow was it that you failed to approve them?

SW: I think it’s a very sad blow for the church. It’s been presented as if it was a failure in public relations, or somehow a human rights lapse. I can see why people say those things, but for me, God has given the church an incredible gift, an incredible blessing, through the leadership, not just the ministry, but the leadership of women, and by voting that down, we’re flushing that gift down the toilet, and I think that’s a tragic day for the Church of England. Why did we make that decision? Well, almost all the Bishops voted in favour and plenty of the House clergy voted in favour. What the church decided to do that day was to wait until those who couldn’t find a way to accept this with lots of concessions would come on board. We all know this is going to get passed in the next few years. I don’t think anyone’s in any doubt of that. We decided to wait, some of us with great impatience and a considerable amount of fury and exasperation. I’m grieved, but I’m not altogether ashamed of a church that says we’re about being a reconciled community who makes these decisions together and hurry isn’t always holiness.

JH: Pete Myers, you’re on the, can I put it like this, the conservative wing of the church. Do you accept that analysis?

PM: I think I accept the analysis that what happened on that day was the church decided to all move forward together. The way the church wants to introduce women Bishops is a way that allows everyone’s consciences to be respected. So I’m perfectly happy with moving forwards as long as everyone’s consciences are respected.

[I note he fails to say how those opposed may come to view things otherwise, so essentially it seems to me he’s happy because on this view the status quo will be maintained.]

MP: What is all this talk about people’s consciences as far as women are concerned? We are in a Methodist central hall here, we haven’t got a non-conformist on the panel, but the Methodists have had women ministers for, ooh.. about a century. Dinah Morris in George Elliot’s Adam Bede is a Methodist woman preacher. There just isn’t any problem about it. Why are people talking about their consciences?

[I’m not too sure of the priesthood status of Methodist ministers, there appear to both ordained and non-ordained roles, so is this point relevant?]

PM: I think that’s a great question. I think what it comes down to is a similar issue to the celibacy issue [debated earlier]. I’m not catholic. I don’t believe ministers have to be celibate, but I do believe that the gospel requires me to deny myself and to follow what the Bible says. … And while you know, different people look at the Bible and come to a different conclusion on what the Bible says about gender roles, I’m glad that we can try and move forward in a way that respects the fact that we understand the Bible differently.

[By which he seems to mean, not moving at all.]

JH: All right. Thank you Pete Myers from the Church Society. There’s a lady behind you there, you’re wearing a dog-collar so I assume –

Campaign badge.

RHW: I’m Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Speaker’s Chaplain and a vicar in Hackney. I think there is a depth of illiteracy when it comes to biblical knowledge, and I also believe we are kidding ourselves when we talk about ‘lets not hurry’. We’re not hurrying this thing. Women have been knocking at the door for hundreds of years, and if we’re really honest there is a depth of dishonesty as well. If we’re really honest then we will say that we don’t want it to happen in our lifetime.

[Looking at you, Pete Myers!]

JH: And there are those I’d’ve said, think you might be when/if they do get women Bishops, you might be the first one.

RHW: I’m not particularly interested in that because I’m –

JH: You wouldn’t turn it down would you?

RHW: I probably would. … I’m quite happy with what I am at the moment, but I believe that is the church’s loss not to have women in leadership at the moment. That’s my concern.

[Initially, I felt a little like the chairman: what do you mean you wouldn’t accept; not another woman preferring not to exhibit personal ambition, I thought. However her career looks amazing – click on the link up top. Once you’ve been chaplain to the Queen (who is the head of the Anglican church), then why worry about being Bishop? I’ll let her off this once.]

JH: All right, lets go to another woman in the front row here …

RH: … I’m Rosie Harper and I’m a vicar in Great Missenden, and I’m Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham. I think we started off saying the church is at the crossroads, and this issue demonstrates the depth of the problem that we’ve got, because there is a vast gulf between the way in which our society ticks, and we’ve worked towards a real good in treating people of different sexualities with honour, and that is the tone of our society. And then there’s this big gulf. And then the church maintains that, some different view, and they’ve got some greater wisdom. And I think it’s the gulf that’s going to catch us out in the end and make the institution seem irrelevant.

[Important question then, is the LDS church attitude to women making it increasingly irrelevant? She seems to be in agreement with Sarah Dunant.]

AR: I think there’s a really interesting point here. I’m sitting here listening to this and very aware of what I might call a tale of two cities. I’m sitting here as a Catholic, but with significant involvement in the Anglican church over many years.

JH: And you don’t even have women priests.

AR: Exactly. And I think the reality is that there remain massive questions for all of the mainstream Christian denominations. There are ways in which there are functional questions about adding women into the equation, about making sure that women are present, that their experiences are listened to, that they have a role in decision-making and authority, but then there are also deeper theological questions about what it means to be a woman in the light of our belief in God. Those deeper theological questions have to be answered alongside the more functional ones. However, there is another side to it, and this is the bit that keeps me as woman, as a Christian. I’m aware that we’ve just heard from two women in dog-collars who are committed to Christian ministry in the church and remain in that place. For me growing up as a woman, I found that one of the few places where there was any kind of counter-cultural voice about women being seen as commodified, about the dignity of what it means to be a woman actually came from my church background. That helped me resist some of those wider streams of culture. So for me this is a tale of two cities, as on the one hand the church has a message of such profundity to speak to men and women about what it means to be men and women, and yet on the other hand we have major issues about the way in which the church has discriminated against women.

[It was interesting to see both ideas – the good counter-cultural voice, and acknowledgement that there is discrimination, put forward by the same person. In the LDS debate they are usually expressed by polar opposites.]

JH: It’s quite hard for you to argue against that isn’t it Sarah?

SD: When I have spoken to senior Catholic women, one of the things they have said is actually, I don’t want to be a priest, I want to revisit the whole notion of the priesthood as having far too much authority. This thing needs to be blown wider open to laity and other people, so it’s not just about women priests. We return to the power of the authority, both sacramental and pastoral, of the figure of the priest, through history and right up to the present day.

[This LDS version of this argument: separating priesthood and administrative offices, has been discussed in various posts on a number of blogs recently.]

JH: Keep going Matthew.

MP: What would Jesus think of us all arguing about the theology of women priests and quoting particular bits of the new and old testament. He would say, please friends this isn’t about the theology of women priests. Are there not bigger things to concern us, are there not more important things –

SD: Well, I think it’s a pretty –

MP: – to do.

SD: – big thing right at this minute actually.

[So that was the: there are more important things argument. And the debate moved on.]

To assemble my questions then:

  • Do you agree or disagree with Sarah Dunant that developing countries where church growth is strong will eventually hit the same issues that now exist in the west, equality for women being one?
  • Many of the participants seemed to agree that denying women office of Bishop was to the detriment of the Anglican church. How do you see the denial of priesthood for women in the LDS church?
  • Are the attitudes of the church rendering it irrelevant in a modern society? How, or how not?
  • How does it make you feel to see that we are not the only denomination having these debates?