Women Bishops and the lessons of history

"Like a mighty tortoise
moves the church of God.
Brothers we are treading
where we've always trod."

Any institution changes slowly and change is costly. Should the consecration as bishops of women as well as men be at any cost? Not at any cost in my view, but inevitably at some cost. Where there is disagreement its resolution almost always involves compromise. The draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure supported by 42 of the 44 dioceses already represents a potentially workable compromise. It is arguable if the 2 additional amendments added last week by the House of Bishops are a compromise too far (for some) or not far enough (for others).

Yesterday was Josephine Butler's commemoration day. Thinking about her I wondered if we can learn anything from the history of higher education for women that is relevant for the C. of E.'s currently ridiculous position in relation to women in the episcopate? As referred to in a previous post this great 19th century social reformer famously said that 'God and one woman make a majority'. Among other work she supported the establishment of Girton and then Newnham College, Cambridge. The first University College for women, Girton College, Cambridge, was set up in 1870. University authorities didn't recognize it. 40 year later, in 1910, Oxford and Cambridge Universities had over a thousand female students but its women students could not attend lectures without specific permission and could not take degrees, however brilliant their academic results during undergraduate studies. It was not until 1920 and 1921 that degrees were awarded to women in Oxford and Cambridge and not until 1948 did Cambridge admit women as full university members and award degrees to women on the same basis as men.

You can read more about the piecemeal, often grudging      opening of the educational doors in 'Women's Access to Higher Education: an Overview (1860 - 1948)'.

 It is a history of doors being pushed open little by little, while traditionalists who feared what university education for women might do attempted to keep them closed and padlocked. It was often clergymen were shouted loudest, even from the pulpit, about the supposed dangers to society of allowing women into higher education. In 'Women's Liberty and Man's Fear', an article written by Teresa Billington-Greig in 1907 she gives this explanation for the fact that most men of her time and earlier wanted women barred from higher educational opportunities:
"Man is afraid of women. He proves it every day. History proves it for him - the history of politics, the history of industry, the history of social life. An examination of women's present position and of men's attitude towards the women's movement shows evidence of fear at every turn. Yes, it is quite true. Man is afraid of women because he has oppressed her… There is always for him the fear that the end may come, and rebellion carries with it not merely the throwing off the yoke but alongside of it the dread of such vengeful retaliation as corresponds to the oppressor's tyranny. 
Two children are about to run a race. Says one to the other; 'You cannot run so well as I can so I will bind your legs with a cord.' Then as the race proceeds he cries, 'You can't run - you can't run. I am cleverer and stronger than you are.' 'Unbind my legs' is the answer, 'that I may have a chance.' But the free-limbed child capers about and says. 'unbind you? No, indeed. You have not come as far as I have. You do not know how to run. But when you catch me I will unbind your legs.' 
In all essentials this little fable is analogous with the facts in the life of woman. On the ground that she is less able than man she is penalised in the struggle, and denied the opportunity, which she most needs. Her demand for liberty is met by the reply that when she, with her additional burdens, has shown herself man's equal according to his standard of judgement, her claim will be considered… If women really were incapable the arbitrary and artificial ring-fence which men have erected, and which they so carefully preserve, would not be needed. The fact of its erection and preservation is an acknowledgment by men that they fear women's equal competition."
We have come a long way (men and women) since 1907. It is a rare man who would voice the opinion that women should be denied equal opportunities with men, except those who believe they can justify such a position through theological language, appeals to particular interpretations of Scripture and Tradition. I am thankful for those women who 100 years or so ago were prepared to compromise a just principle, in order to study and pass university examinations for degrees the establishment refused to award them. They pushed the door open for others and our country now benefits from a higher proportion of well educated women and men. Women's wombs have not shrunk as a result as some men feared. 

One of the lessons of the history of discrimination against women in higher education is that major change in entrenched institutions has often been achieved slowly and piecemeal, with all the baggage of hurt, humiliation, misinformation and prejudice that has come with that. A similar process can be seen in the movement for women's suffrage. In the UK the vote was at first given only to women over 30 who were home-owners, then women over 21 and now over 18 - little by little women are slowly becoming acknowledged as as sentient rational humans. 

So what does all this have to do with trying to end discrimination against women in the Church of England? Reluctantly, I think little by little has to be the way forward. I have come to the same conclusion as Lay Anglicana and others that in spite of the imperfections of the Draft Measure as now amended it should be supported through General Synod this July to enable the possibility of the consecration of women as bishops. My anxiety is that the amendments added by the bishops seem to make the discrimination it incorporates even more obvious. Could that mean that even if passed by a 2/3 majority in General Synod that Parliament could throw it out since Parliament can only vote yes or no on a Measure and are not able to amend it?

I hope the Church of England will move forward in hope and faith that God can redeem this unholy mess and do far more than we can currently imagine. In the end this is not primarily about equality it is about gospel values. It is about seeking for the church to become, in the words of 'A Reader in Writing',
"...a slightly better representation of what Christ came into the world to achieve, through the grace, love and forgiveness that we will continue to receive from the cross and proclaim to the world."


  1. Fascinating post.

    Although I don't know as much of the history of women's university education as you so eruditely share, as a Mothers' Union member well aware of the history of Josephine Butler's compatriot Mary Sumner, I see that all progress in the matter of women's right to fulfil their full God given potential (as both women eventually did), has been unutterably slow and painful. I guess that's why I'm prepared to suggest that women (and their supporters) should take whatever ground is given by those who still 'fear' us.

    Thanks for the quote and link too - an encouragement to keep sticking my neck out, even if it makes me less than popular.

    1. If people never stuck their neck out and said the things that need to be heard how will people with no power and no voice ever be heard in this world? And I'm not just thinking of women. Thanks for sticking your neck out - I find your recent post inspirational - I would like to have quoted more, but I try to keep my posts short and this one was already long.
      One of the problems for women is that when women make points gently we are sometimes either ignored or bizarrely accused of shouting.

  2. A splendid post, Nancy. I haven't had time to follow all your links, so have bookmarked the page for when time allows....

    1. Thanks 'Perpetua'. There's so much more I would like to have written as I have a particular interest in social history, but I try to keep my posts short. Meanwhile - prayer, prayer and more prayer I think, especially that the continuing process will be marked my love and mutual respect whatever one's opinion.


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