Why even the non-religious should regret the church’s backwardness
Once, many years ago when I was younger and even more stupid, I found myself hoping that an England cricketer would fail. The year was 1995, and Robin Smith, who I quite admired as a middle-order batsman, had been recalled to open the batting against the West Indies. I thought he was being misused, and that the selectors were most likely to realise their mistake if he suffered a series of low scores, so every run he scored was an irritation.
Maybe I was right about the selectors’ mistakes, but I missed the point, as my friends pointed out to me. What I wanted was to see England perform well, but I’d allowed my personal view of how that should be achieved to take over. I’d missed the obvious truth that if Smith did well, that was good for England. My focus was my preferred means, rather than the end.
My mistake there was glaringly, embarrassingly obvious, but a lot of people fall into a very similar error in relation to the church. When the Church of England’s General Synod voted against female bishops (or rather, failed to vote in favour of the draft legislation by the required margin), plenty of people outside the church were delighted, believing that such backwardness would further damage the CofE’s authority and open the door to a more secular society.
Catherine Bennett, hardly a head-banging anti-theist, provided a mild example of this line of thinking in the Observer:
[S]upposing female bishops really constitutes some sort of advance, does one want the church to have any more credibility than it has already? A victory would only, as [Rowan] Williams now confirms, have entrenched his church’s claims to worldly authority – and with that, the ambitions of Britain’s rival faiths for enhanced, equal-opportunity meddling.
The argument goes that progress is achieved by the removal of religion from privileged public positions, the continued existence of a regressive stained-glass ceiling preventing women from becoming bishops is likely to speed or encourage this removal, therefore this inequitable policy must be a good thing. It has a certain attraction, but to me, it smacks a bit too much of my cheering for the West Indies.
The church doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it reflects (more or less) the views of the ordinary people who are its members. If the church is displaying and persisting with backward attitudes, it strongly suggests that these attitudes are common in the pews, and (again, with some reservations) society at large. If those views were considered wholly repugnant, the church would have to change or die. To celebrate the enduring popularity of backward views as a harbinger of progress would be ridiculous, but that’s effectively what’s going on here.
After all, the aggregated vote in General Synod on allowing women to be bishops was 73% in favour, or 63% among the laity, which (with allowances for different questions and contexts) is virtually indistinguishable from the views of the wider population. If the church is misogynist and out of touch, so is the country as a whole. This should be a cause for concern, not celebration.
All things being equal, a reduction in the church’s popularity and corresponding claim to authority might be considered a good thing, but as mentioned above, they’re not equal. If a secular society is the ultimate goal regardless of anything else, then clearly anything that weakens the church is a good thing, but I’d argue that secularism is just a means to the end of a better, fairer society. Removing religious privilege has little value if the same views continue to hold sway.
So I think everyone – theist, atheist, secularist or whatever – should be concerned when the church expresses views we consider backward. Whatever our differences about the proper role of the church in society or the truth of its teachings, we should all be able to agree that backward views are bad, and the fewer people who hold them, the better.