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Angela Tilby: Misogyny still plagues the Church

23 February 2024

Alamy

Women priests with the Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, marking the 20th anniversary of the admission of women to priest’s orders, in 2014

Women priests with the Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, marking the 20th anniversary of the admission of women

AS WE approach the 30th anniversary of the admission of women to priest’s orders, I still find it a surprise and a delight that the Church has embraced women’s ministry. We now have significant numbers of women priests, deacons, and bishops, as well as lay women in positions of authority.

So, I am not sympathetic to a fairly constant campaign (on grounds of continuing misogyny) for the ending of the arrangements by which there can still be no-go areas for women priests. I have clergy friends of that constituency, and I do not find them misogynistic. I have preached for them, wearing my stole priest-wise. I enjoy their hospitality and their company, and I genuinely want them to flourish. I also find that they are often more self-aware around women and more appreciative of their gifts than many of those who are apparently “affirming”.

There is misogyny in the Church, but it expressed in subtler ways. Years ago, when I was a deacon, I worked alongside a male priest who was given to bouts of irritation. His explosions raised a few eyebrows, but nobody minded much. Yet, I remember an incident in which I briefly lost my rag while preparing for a service, and I quickly discovered that women were not allowed to be angry: they are only acceptable if they are “nice”. I have also found that senior male priests often prefer to work with women who will not challenge them. And then there are the women who dislike women priests because they feel belittled by not having a (higher-status) male priest.

And perhaps most dismaying are those who loudly support women, in the name of diversity and inclusivity, along with (of course) gays and trans people. But if, as a woman, you answer back, disagree, raise your voice, or apply your intelligence to asking forensic questions, all hell breaks loose, and you are labelled “vehement”, “strident”, “obstructive”.

So, two cheers for women in the Church, but we must continue to resist those who are simply uncomfortable with intelligent and capable women; those who prefer women clergy to be dog-collared accessories, endless supports to male pride, and comforters of male fear. There are quite a lot of women willing to play such parts because weak men cannot cope without them, and preferment for women can depend on successfully navigating the male ego. I have spent much of my ministry sitting on my rage about all this, occasionally expressing it, and then suffering for weeks from the guilt and grief of having upset someone.

Misogyny remains the legacy of a catastrophic moral system that has plagued the Church since its inception, and is very far from the legacy of Jesus, who sparred with women without diminishing them, and relished their company as friends.

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