The Legitimate Face of Institutionalised Sexism

It may seem like the story has drifted into the realm of ‘old news’, but the decision was one that both shocked and appalled me; The Church of England has rejected the ordination of female bishops, if only by a very slim margin. Whilst the vote in favour was the majority it failed to reach the three quarter mark that was required. Hopes that the motion would pass had been relatively high when the General Synod met. It seemed that those with influence, such as the former and current Archbishop of Canterbury, supported the motion, and general consensus was that there should be no significant objection. However, as is often the way, it was the extreme (or as they prefer; traditionalist) minority that got their way; women are still forbidden to hold the most significant and powerful positions in one of the world’s most prominent religious, and not to mention political, institutions. There are several reasons why this should be of concern, but I feel that three distinct issues stand out.

Firstly, it is a clear demonstration that women are still regarded as inferior to, or lesser than, males within the church. This is nothing new, of course, for centuries religion has been responsible for the emotional, physical, and social repression of women. One may have thought though that, in this day and age, and in a religious institution that already took the great leap of ordaining women vicars, where women are women are supposed to be equal to men in all ways; that the CofE would not make the foolish mistake of attempting to continue the partial subjugation of women. It is a foolish politician who makes gender assumptions, or declares that women can’t do certain jobs. It is a foolish CEO who states that women are not meant for, or ready for the boardroom. Why, then, is it acceptable when the church does this. Furthermore, this can never be a solely, private or religious decision; 26 members of this very same church hold undeserved political office and so therefore, represent, constitutionally, an inherently sexist organisation.

This, though, is not the issue, per se. The Church of England has the ears, and the souls, of millions of people worldwide. It is an influence that is enviable, and so if the church demonstrates an outdated ideology that women, in some ways are inferior to men; that is an ideology that will seep into mass consciousness. What impact will it have on the everyday devout Anglican? How will it affect the work of missionaries who are promoting the church in countries where traditional gender barriers still aren’t being challenged? It sends a message to all those who hold religious (or, merely, Anglican) that it is acceptable and moral to discriminate against women; and that is wrong.

The second sincere problem I have with this decision is the fact that the people who naturally, or internally, supported the decision, indeed women themselves, voted against the ordination of female bishops. Why? Because they sought to protect the cohesion of the church. In a nut-shell, they surrendered their ideas to out dated and immoral perceptions because to do otherwise would cause division. Normal, right-minded, and fair individuals continued the repression of women within religion. It is a keen demonstration of the bizarre ethos of the church, unspoken but true; it is better to have a force of strength, than a force of fairness. Would we settle for this in secular politics? Would we say it is acceptable for Parliament to reject anti-discrimination legislation because one extremist faction was unhappy about it? No; that would be an outrage, and people would line the streets in protest.

What may have been gathered by now is that my greatest issue with this decision, is that there is nothing we, as non-synod members, can do. The public and secular government sit back whilst a powerful organisation continues its policy of institutionalised sexism. Why? The situation has been described as ‘sad’ or as ‘a dark day’, but where is the declaration from our leaders that says this is not just wrong but illegal? Nowhere; because it is not illegal. Religion is exempt from equality and diversity legislation (just like it is tax exempt), and as a result can discriminate freely on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, and any other means you can imagine. Religion has the right to halt social progress in its tracks. This is just the tip of a horrific iceberg; in Islam women are not allowed to hold positions of religious authority over men, in any way, and in Catholicism the most a woman can hope for when she considers how to be a servant of her faith is to be confined to a life in a nunnery. Yet we allow this. We do not stop to condemn religious extremists who break the law of murder in the name of their god, but when religions are openly allowed to violate equality laws we all sit back and accept that it’s what they believe is right. Private belief and even discrimination are human rights, but when we talk about institutions, or any organisation that operates in the public sphere, it is simply not acceptable.

We need to break this ability that religion has been given. To openly discriminate within an established body is wrong. It does not matter whether the focus of said body is a god or money. These outdated and ridiculous attitudes towards women should be given no credence; sexists cannot hide behind their god anymore than a murderer can. It is time that our government tackled this head on and declared that religious institutions are no longer exempt from any form of legislation. It is time for equality to matter.