My Mum is a member of the Catholic church. My Dad isn’t. When I and my siblings were growing up he wanted us to understand that the church didn’t have a monopoly on righteous behaviour and that he was no worse a person than the typical attendee at Sunday Mass.
I attended a Catholic junior school and at that time in the 1960’s he had a reasonable concern that I was being indoctrinated and brainwashed. My mother dismissed his concerns. An occasion on which he illustrated his case stuck in my mind:
” If I keep stealing from the shops and lie to my parents but go to confession on Saturday’s and Mass every Sunday will I go to Heaven?” he asked me. “Yes” I replied.
“If I don’t steal and I don’t lie and I am honest and helpful but don’t go to Church on a Sunday will I go to Heaven?” “No” said I.
My Mum was quite relaxed about her religion. She didn’t force us to attend Church but we thought it was expected probably because every Monday the headmistress would ask who had or hadn’t attended Mass the previous day. She seemed to have a sixth sense (or spies) and quickly detected anyone lying. It was better to sit through boring sermons than get on the wrong side of the head mistress in matters concerning the wellbeing of the soul.
My Dad maintained his campaign to ensure we prioritised moral values above church rules. He wanted us to think about and challenge the Church’s teachings and actively decide what was consistent with our image of God and what was merely a manifestation of the Church’s desire or habit to maintain power and control. I eventually stopped attending Mass aged 18 during my first terms at university.
But my Dad’s main complaint about the church was its misogyny. It still is. The current debate about women bishops in the Church of England is just the latest. He is frustrated that the female members of the church (Catholic and CofE) are not activists in the cause of equality but continue to accept the second class position and provide most of the voluntary work on which the churches rely for their survival. Why don’t they stop attending services and go on strike until they are given equal rights? The priests and bishops would not survive long without them he reasons.
What, in an age when discrimination on grounds of gender is outlawed in most spheres of public and work life, justifies the church’s blatant sexism? Why can they legally hide their discrimination behind theology? What is theology anyway?
Did God really intend women to be inferior to men? Not the God of my childhood images! I don’t accept the “men and women have a different but equal roles” argument. Yes, in the bearing and maybe even the rearing of children they do but how does that justify women’s exclusion from the priesthood or their appointment as bishops? Nor am I convinced by the apostolic succession argument. Why can’t women be part of the continuous line of church leaders back to the apostles. According to historians some prominent early church leaders were women but men later wrote them out of history, presumably because they were an inconvenience to the furtherance of male centric policy. And what do they mean by continuous line anyway? Would it be something like the Olympic torch relay where each incumbent passes the spirit in the guise of a flame to their successor?
I don’t think there is any justification, but if the churches continue to allow even a small faction to opt out of recognising women bishops (or in the catholic church the continued prohibition on the ordination of women priests) they will be acknowledging that discrimination is acceptable. They will increasingly appear as the last bolt holes for the minority who think it untenable for a woman to be in a position of authority over a man simple because of her gender and irrespective of their potential ability to contribute to the collective enterprise.
I don’t know whether I believe in a god or not, for me the force of gravity is a strong contender, however I do think that discrimination simply on the grounds of an inherent characteristic such as race, gender, sexual preference or disability by any monotheistic religion is inconsistent with the religion’s own description of their God and that their God would not be pleased.