Women [and] Archbishops: Lent & Liberation, Part 4

Brackets matter. Take the title of this blog post, for example. It signals two things at once: 1) the topic of women in relation to archbishops; and 2) the tantalizing possibility of women as archbishops. The title manages both of those meanings with the nifty little conceit of brackets.

But there are other kinds of brackets, the kind that aren’t spoken but are clearly operational nonetheless. Like this: “For the sake of Church unity there are certain things [women’s ordination] that we really can’t talk about right now.” Or this: “Accepting gay people in our churches would break centuries of traditional Church teaching [about the all-male priesthood].”

Brackets are [functionally and politically] handy and [spiritually] dangerous. If we can’t say what we really mean and talk with each other about what really counts, does it really matter what kind of [political or religious] conversation we’re having?

Unless very skillfully used, I find brackets annoying. So let’s take the recent resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury as an occasion to consider the insidious use of bracketing in Christian churches.

The circles in which I tend to run are abuzz about brother Rowan’s failure during his tenure fully to embrace lesbian and gay people. Anyone who has read his brilliant theological essays knows that he actually does affirm LGBT people. The real problem here has been his inability fully to embrace women. That failure is at the root of the “gay problem” – and it’s usually bracketed.

All of us engaged in the struggle for sexual inclusion need to be very clear that the entire struggle rests, not on sex and sexuality, but on gender – and especially on the status of women and women’s bodies.

So on this Lenten journey toward new life, I would like to share just three [further] observations about this struggle, which may seem arcane at first. Trust me; these matter, just like [insidious] brackets.

1. Raping Men is Worse [in the Bible] than Dismembering Women

The next time someone trots out the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 to oppose equal marriage rights – a story about rape, not “homosexuality” – ask that person about the strikingly similar and horrifying story in Judges 19.

Destruction of Sodom. The dismemberment of a woman apparently doesn't warrant divine pyrotechnics.

In that biblical story from Judges, a host is faced with the same dilemma as Lot was in the story from Genesis. In Judges, however, no angelic intervention prevents the sexual sacrifice of a woman to fulfill the requirements of a hospitable household. The woman in that story, an anonymous concubine, is brutally raped by Benjamite men in Gibeah and is later ritually dismembered to prompt retributive military action by Israel (see Judges 20:6-11; and for goodness’ sake, don’t let your children read the Bible!).


So why have no Hollywood films been made depicting the fate of that concubine at the hands of the Benjamite tribe in Gibeah nor of the swift retribution inflicted on the Benjamites by Israel? No European legal statute or Medieval penitential category emerged to describe the rape and ritualistic dismemberment of that nameless concubine. There is no sin of the Benjamites referred to as “Benjamy” or sinners as “Gibeahthites” as there are “sodomy” and “sodomites.” Why? (I’m grateful to the books on sodomy by Mark Jordan and Michael Carden for that essential question.)

The answer is painfully clear: biblical writers were truly horrified by the prospect of raping men. Dismembering women? Eh. Not so bad, really…

2. Polygamy Protects Women [Who are Submissive] in Households

Bishop John William Colenso

Only the most historically astute Anglican Christians today will recall that John Colenso was a 19th century Anglican bishop in South Africa. He got into trouble by permitting new converts to Christianity to continue in polygamous relationships. This prompted a crisis in the Anglican Communion that didn’t get “settled” (if it really ever did) until the late 20th century.

Even though both the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth conferences grudgingly accepted polygamy for the sake, ostensibly, of the economic well-being of women, something far more patriarchal is at work here. The (limited) tolerance of polygamy in all these decisions is directly proportional to the lack of any threat it poses to the gendered order of marital relations, more particularly to the patriarchal ordering of a household.

As long as there is a man in charge, we can live with a bit of [ethical] wiggle room.

3. Same-Gender [Non-Hierarchical] Marriage would Destroy the Ozone Layer

Think back to 2003. Remember all those objections to the election of openly gay and partnered Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire? Those objections were not about “homosexuality.” The voices objecting to that election made some rather revealing rhetorical shifts. They no longer referenced the biblical story of Sodom (that’s so 20th century). Instead, they started insisting on the earlier Genesis accounts of the supposed “complementarity” of women and men as essential in God’s design of creation.

In a 2003, Peter Akinola, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, declared that setting aside the “divine arrangement” of marriage as between a man and a woman is an “assault on the sovereignty of God.” In a rather startling rhetorical move, Akinola compared this assault to the human depletion of the ozone layer insofar as “homosexuality” marks a “terrible violation of the harmony of the eco-system of which mankind is a part” (See Steven Bates’ great account of all this.)

The “harmony” in question is none other than the gendered ordering of the patriarchal household.

Those are just three among countless instances of bracketing the dignity of women for the sake of preserving patriarchy. They call me to fervent repentance in this Lenten season for failing to do more to dismantle patriarchy. They also beg a question, at least for me: Why am I still a Christian? I do have reasons for embracing this peculiar faith, and I’ll try to articulate them as we move on toward Easter.

For now, I’ll just say this: there actually is a woman archbishop. Her name is Katherine Jefferts Schori. For some complex political, cultural, and religious reasons, she is not called “archbishop” but instead the “Presiding Bishop” of the Episcopal Church. But she is, in fact and in effect, an archbishop. Thank God.

I don’t mean that she alone will somehow erase the patriarchal past. I don’t even mean that she is a feminist (she might be, I don’t know). Given Christian history, those issues don’t matter nearly so much right now as the mere fact that the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman.

That gives me hope. I know it does for many others as well. And wouldn’t it be great if Queen Elizabeth II found hope in that, too? She, after all, will decide who will replace Rowan Williams. Let us pray…

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

2 thoughts on “Women [and] Archbishops: Lent & Liberation, Part 4”

  1. Okay, the ad for Dove Men+Care products at the bottom of this post cracked me up, because it carefully brackets [JOURNEY TO COMFORT with Steve Nash].

    I guess the bracketing thing is catching on, even in male beautfy products…

Leave a Reply