Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling (guest post)

August 4, 2010

by Hannah

Earlier this month, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion to allow for the appointment of female bishops for the first time.  This move has been a long time coming: as far back as 1988 the global Anglican church agreed at the Lambeth Conference that, in principle, its provinces could, if they chose, appoint women as bishops; and women have been ordained as priests in the Church of England since 1994.  This move hasn’t been universally accepted within the church, and the degree of opposition coming from some quarters must appear bizarre and archaic to outsiders.  I’ve meant to write about this for some time, in order to explain this controversy to those unfamiliar with the internal politics and theology of the Church, being delayed only by my inability to get down to it!  Hopefully, this will make clearer the history behind this move, and its significance for the future of the church.

 In order to understand the politics of the Church of England, it’s necessary to know its history as an organisation.  The C of E sees itself as part of the one historic church that was instituted by the first apostles of Jesus after his death and resurrection.  The unity and continuity of the church is hugely important within Christian theology, being enshrined in the creeds that form the basic declaration of faith for all, orthodox, Christians:

 We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church

 with “catholic” meaning universal and apostolic meaning, as instituted by the apostles.  The Church of England, along with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sees its hierarchy as being a continuation of that of the early Church.  It was also heavily influenced by the theology of the Reformation, which sort to move away from the authority of tradition, and a centralised hierarchy, and towards authority directly from a correct understanding of the Bible.  The Church of England could be described as a halfway-house between Protestantism and Catholicism.  The Reformers find their intellectual descendents in the Evangelical – or low church – wing of the Church (for an excellent summation of its constitution and internal groupings see this article from “Fulcrum” a website that represents “Open Evangelical” Anglicans). Since the Oxford Movement of the 19th century there has been an increased emphasis on more traditionally Catholic styles of liturgy and theology from a certain section of the Church- called as the Anglo-Catholic or “high” Church.  There is also a growing Liberal section, sometimes known as the “broad” Church.  It is in this hodge-podge of different ideas and interests that some kind of agreement has to be found.

In fact, there is a growing consensus, from all wings of the Church, that the authorisation of women is both appropriate and necessary.  The remaining controversy is about how best to accommodate objectors, who mostly come from a conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Anglo-Catholic background.  The conservative Evangelical objections – as represented by the Reform network – centre around the concept of “headship”; in other words, that the divine order is that men should be the “head” of women and that women holding authority over men is completely forbidden by scripture and therefore inappropriate.  They justify this by appealing to such proof-texts as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.  They would like a system put in place whereby objecting churches would not be under the authority of a female bishop, but an alternative appointed bishop.  Naturally, I wouldn’t agree with this conclusion and support the position put forward here in an article by Tom Wright, a respected Evangelical scholar and, up until recently, the Bishop of Durham, that these passages have been significantly misinterpreted, and that women serving in the Church at all levels is not as unprecedented as many think.  This demonstrates the pitfall of a literalist interpretation of scripture – that divorcing it from the human context in which it was written and first received leads to interpretations that are incomplete and often anachronistic. 

Even stronger objections come from the most traditionalist Anglo- Catholics – represented by the network Forward in Faith. Indeed some of them have threatened to leave the Church.  In addition to many arguments shared with conservative Evangelicals, their objections arise from the emphasis they place on the “orders” of the Church (deacons, priests and bishops) as being both representative of Christ and succeeding from the, supposedly all male, apostles; and the Eucharist as, as FiF describes it, “really and substantially, the Lord’s Body and Blood”; gaining its authenticity from that of the administering Priest, who in turn has been ordained by an authentic bishop, and so on.  The importance placed on this, by both Roman and Anglo-Catholics, explains, in part, the recent decision by the Vatican to put the ordination of women, along with other “crimes against the sacraments” amongst its most grave offences, including child abuse.  This places traditional Anglo-Catholics in a quandary, as, if there are dubious innovations, as they see it, with any of the Church’s orders then they cannot know for sure if the sacraments are truly authentic.  They would like to be shielded completely from this decision, with their own Dioceses, ministered by male bishops.  FiF even argues for an additional Province, with complete autonomy, for traditionalists.  Another Anglo-Catholic objection is that this move would completely alienate the Church of England from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, irreparably damaging ecumenical relationships.  I believe – perhaps betraying my own low church viewpoint – that while the Church’s traditions are important in maintaining a continuous witness to its founding events, to place such emphasis on the substance of its rituals is to detract from the spirit of what they represent and the sovereignty of God over saving events.  Also to elevate the institutional Church, ecumenical relationships and male “headship,” as the conservatives would have it, to such a level is to place weight on all three, that none of them can bare.  This is, amply, demonstrated by the Catholic Church’s present woes, as well as the fact that, as pointed out by Bishops Tom Wright and David Stancliffe, ecumenical relationships have long been fraught, with the Roman Catholic Church refusing to recognise any of the Church of England’s orders – women bishops or no women bishops – and the Eastern and Western Churches having a long and checkered history.

With the appointment of women to all orders of the Church, now widely accepted the question remains as to how to provide for dissenters.  On what should we model this dispute?  Firstly, it is emphatically not the place of the Church to follow blindly the mood of the times as suggested by a recent Guardian editorial, nor is this one of those stand or fall issues where the Church must contend over its basic principles.  How then should  we deal with those who want to place restrictions beyond what is demanded by scripture or principle.  The model for this is ironically a dispute that doesn’t involve women at all.  In the early days of the Church, as it was just growing beyond a small sub-sect of Judaism, there was a dispute over whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity were required to follow all the ritual laws of Judaism, including circumcision.  St Paul, who was central to the spread of the Gospel to Gentiles, was not shy about condemning those who hypocritically insisted on applying the most exacting standards on the new converts, just as Jesus had opposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day in the strongest possible terms.  However as St Paul would go on to say in his letter to the Romans we must also have respect who genuinely feel they cannot, in good conscience, go along with this move.  Clearly, there are many, within the Church, who object to these changes, in good faith.  This is not to let opponents off the hook, entirely.  It is clear from reading the objections detailed in the Bishop of Rochester’s report (Chapter 5) on the theological issues raised by appointing women bishops, that many of the arguments are highly patriarchal and this cannot be divorced from a desire – conscious or otherwise – to maintain men’s privileges, both individually and institutionally.  This doesn’t imply that women’s involvement is unimportant, only a need to be patient with others’ weaknesses, even when it matters.

The current draft of the legislation instructs female bishops to delegate some of their responsibilities to a male colleague.  Many of those who object to the proposals feel that this does not go far enough to deal with their concerns.  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York proposed an amendment to make this delegation of responsibility a function of the legislation rather than the authority of the main bishop, but it was rejected as it was felt to undermine the authority of the office of the bishop and construe female bishops as in some way second class.  Perhaps a better option would be to give objecting parishes a one time opportunity to opt out of the current hierarchy and into a new diocese or dioceses led by bishops of their choosing.  In this way female bishops would maintain authority over all parts of their dioceses at the time of their consecration and objectors would be free to maintain their own standards.


No paying, no gain?

August 2, 2010

The Times paywall has now been up for a month. Since July 2nd visitors to its website have had to pay either £1 for 24 hours access, or for a subscription rate. Various esteemed media bods have tried to estimate exactly how many readers were paying to view the Times website. These numbers vary, but generally the figure seems to be around 15,000 paid subscribers, plus a similar number paying for ipad subscriptions. What is clear is that the Times website has lost a lot of readers since forcing people to pay for its services. Indeed, traffic could be down by as much as 90%, possibly more, since introducing the paywall.

It was inevitable that such a huge drop in traffic would happen. Why would you pay for news on the internet, when there is so much stuff available for free? I used to go on the Times website quite a bit; Michael Atherton is one of the best cricket writers out there (and my childhood hero), whilst Hugo Rifkind, Caitlin Moran, David Aaronovich, Danny Finkelstein and Matthew Parris are just five writers off the top of my head who are worth reading. But I haven’t logged on to it since the paywall was launched. Even when many Twitterers were recommending an apparently excellent article by Aaronovich on NHS Reform, I did not actually go onto the website and read it. I barely have time to read and digest all the free stuff on the net, let alone paying for more at a time when money is tight.

Yet a little part of me – the part that loves good journalism – wants the paywall scheme to work. As David Simon has said:

the industry is going to have to find a way to charge for online content. Yes, I’ve heard the postmodern rallying cry that information wants to be free. But information isn’t. It costs money to send reporters to London, to Fallujah, to Capitol Hill, and to send photographers with them, to keep them there day after day. It costs money to hire the best investigators and writers and then back them up with the best editors. And how anyone can believe that the industry can fund this kind of expense by giving its product away online to aggregators and bloggers is a source of endless fascination to me.

Another David, Mitchell this time, wrote a typically erudite column on this theme too.

There is nothing morally superior about the Guardian‘s decision to keep its website free – it’s merely a difference of opinion about what is practical. Both News Corporation and the Guardian Media Group are desperate to save the newspaper business in the online age – to find a way of continuing to pay journalists and editors for professionally produced content, rather than surrender newsgathering and the written word to the unaccountable blogosphere.

But a paywall will only work if the journalism is worth paying for. The problem therefore for The Times is that they haven’t done much “must-read” journalism recently. I can’t think of any big investigative projects recently, apart from the undercover work last year on peers’ expenses (and even this year, with Stephen Byers’s “cab for hire” comment). Of course, the Sunday Times’s “Insight” team exposed many important stories over many decades, but this was disbanded four years ago. The chapter in Flat Earth News about the demise of the Insight Team in the 1980s is absolutely heart-breaking, and the most recent massive exposes have been revealed curtosy of other newspapers. It was the Daily Telegraph that broke the expenses story last year, and the Guardian that has covered the absolutely mind-boggling Afghan leak story.

Which, incidentally, the Times has been trying to discredit. Here is a Guardian interview with the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange:

By the time I come to talk to Assange, his very last interview of the week, the backlash is in full swing. “Have you seen this?” he says waving a copy of the Times at me. “Have you seen how much bullshit this is? Have you seen page 13? Do you think I should call [the libel law firm] Carter-Ruck?

“It would be a bit silly for me but I’m tempted to. Just look at the headlines and the photo. What’s the imputation?”

There’s a photo of Assange below a headline that reads “‘Taliban hitlist’ row: WikiLeaks founder says he did right thing”. And next to the photo, another headline reading “Named man is already dead.” The imputation is quite clearly that Assange’s actions have resulted in the man’s death, although in the story itself it makes it clear that he actually died two years ago.

“Is it clear?” says Assange. “Let’s see how much we have to read before we reach that information. It’s not in the first paragraph, second, third, fourth, it’s not in the fifth. It’s not until the sixth paragraph you learn that.”

The Times had splashed on its front page the claims that there are named Afghan sources in the files whose lives are now in danger. It’s pure “self-interest”, he says, designed to undermine the Guardian, the Observer‘s sister paper and one of three publications to publish stories based on the files, the others being the New York Times and Der Spiegel. “You can see that this is coming down from editorial, not up from journalism.”

So, the leaking of documents relating to the war in Afghanistan is bad because it will reveal the names of informants, who have been dead for two years? Neo-cons might have to do better than that.

There’s another recent spat which is even more hurtful. Here’s A.A. Gill, presumably one of the “star writers” we’re meant to want to pay for, ‘reviewing’ a TV programme by Clare Balding:

Some time ago, I made a cheap and frankly unnecessary joke about Clare Balding looking like a big lesbian. And afterwards somebody tugged my sleeve to point out that she is a big lesbian, and I felt foolish and guilty. So I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise. Sorry.

Now back to the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation.

Surprisingly enough, Balding complained. And received this response from the editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow:

In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society. Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes . A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status. Jeremy Clarkson, perhaps the epitome of the heterosexual male, is constantly jeered at for his dress sense (lack of), adolescent mind-set and hair style. He puts up with it as a presenter’s lot and in this context I hardly think that AA Gill’s remarks were particularly cruel, especially as he ended by so warmly endorsing you as a presenter

What an odd reponse. Calling someone a “dyke” is derogatory by definition; similar to calling someone a “Paki” or a “nigger”. How the chutney is this comparable to taking the pee out of someone’s dress sense? Beggars belief.

Also, if Jeremy Clarkson is the epitome of the heterosexual male, we might as well give the world back to the monkeys.

It’s impossible to see the Times paywall working unless they use the money to pay for proper journalists doing proper journalism. At the moment their news team is producing the same, old “churnalism”, whilst the attitude of the Sunday Times editor to jokes about lesbians is disgusting.


How women will circumvent the veil ban

July 25, 2010

Paperback Rioter can exclusively reveal how Muslim women in France are going to get round the ban on the niqab:

The women’s groups I spoke to said it was an acceptable compromise, which cover their faces while also showing respect for “Western values”.

Critics of the niqab both in France and also in Britain are attacking the outfit.

Tory right-winger Philip Hollowhead MP thundered, “For women to wear this is intolerable. You can’t see their faces. For all we know they might be terrorists. It’s a great symbol of repression. We are a tolerant country, but if one of my constituents visited me with one of these outfits on, I would refuse to see them.”

Hollowhead has already tabled a Parliamentary motion to get the outfits banned in public spaces.

Watch this space to see how the French Parliament will react to this extraordinary development.


More on the veil

July 19, 2010

Although it would be best not to get too complacent, it seems there is very little chance of a ban on Muslim veils in Britain being imposed any time soon.

Banning the wearing of the Islamic full veil in public would be “un-British”, the immigration minister has said.

Damian Green told the Sunday Telegraph trying to pass such a law would be at odds with the UK’s “tolerant and mutually respectful society”.

Thank goodness for that. If this Parliament is going to be “the most liberal in a generation”, it can hardly start by banning people’s clothing.

What a pity for Mr. Green that some of his back-bench colleagues are not so enlightened:

A Conservative MP says he will refuse to hold meetings with Muslim women wearing full Islamic dress at his constituency surgery unless they lift their face veil.

Last night Muslim groups condemned Philip Hollobone and accused him of failing in his duty as an MP.

In an interview with The Independent, the Kettering MP said: “I would ask her to remove her veil. If she said: ‘No’, I would take the view that she could see my face, I could not see hers, I am not able to satisfy myself she is who she says she is. I would invite her to communicate with me in a different way, probably in the form of a letter.”

According to the BBC article I linked to above, Mr. Hollobone has also introduced a Private Members Bill which would make it illegal for people to cover their faces on the street.

I’m not sure there’s much more to add to this, apart from to state the obvious: Phillip Hollobone is a complete tool.


How Roman Polanski can evade justice

July 16, 2010

by Hannah (who’s now writing so much I don’t think she needs the title of “Guest Poster”.

I’ve watched precisely two Roman Polanski films all the way through; both times with my school, and both were adaptations of books I was then studying. The first was “Macbeth” – a bizarre adaptation with lots of gratuitous nudity; the second was “Tess” – adapted from “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”.  For those of you not familiar with Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, it follows the fate of eponymous heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, an impoverished teenage girl, after she is sent to the household of a wealthy patron, by her dangerously naïve and complicit Mother, in a scheme to enable her to break into the social elite.  She suffers an abusive sexual encounter with her new boss, possibly rape, possibly after being administered an illicit substance (even the author couldn’t decide on this point – the details of the incident are different in different editions of the book).  This was an interesting choice of subject matter for Polanski – mirroring, as it did, an incident in his own life, in which he played the role of the predatory patron.

 In 1977, less than two years before “Tess” was filmed, Polanski was arrested and charged with various sex offences against a 13 year old girl, whom he had taken to Jack Nicholson’s house and plied her with champagne and Quaaludes, having photographed her, ostensibly for modeling shots.  She has always maintained that he raped her and her sworn testimony can be found here.  At trial, Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse in exchange for other, more serious, charges being dropped.  The prosecutor accepted this plea in order spare the victim a full trial in front of the world’s media.  Polanski served 42 days in a psychiatric hospital to undergo evaluation and expected to get off with probation.  When he learnt that the judge planned to sentence him to prison and deportation he fled the country and hasn’t been back since, only living and working in countries that don’t have extradition treaties with the US.  Astonishingly, this hasn’t had any negative effect on his career and he has produced a large body of work for which he has received numerous awards all while being on the run from justice.

 So why is this now suddenly a story?  In 2009, while on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, he was placed under house arrest in Switzerland, which lasted until Monday, when the US application for extradition was turned down.   The case has ramifications beyond simple celebrity tittle-tattle. Within days of his arrest, last year, a petition calling for his immediate release was circulating, containing over 100 signatures, many of them from some of the world’s most renowned and influential artists.  The text of the petition is a prime display of the sense of entitlement of the rich and famous.  It describes Polanski as “one of the greatest living film makers” as if this, in and of itself, should grant him leniency from the authorities, not granted to mere mortals.  It then expresses shock that “their international cultural event” – the film festival that Polanski was due to attend – should be tainted by such ugly matters as international law enforcement, and makes the extraordinary claim that film festivals should be sanctuaries for any artist who falls foul of any government for whatever reason – a status not recognised by any society and which they had entirely concocted out of their own pretensions.  It also places great emphasis on the serious consequences extradition would have for Polanski – consequences he surely knew about when he committed his crimes, and which are what the law demands. 

 Since then Polanski’s supporters have clamoured for his release.  Besides a constant stream of innuendo against his victim, these demands have rested on two claims, outlined by Agnes Poirier here and here.  Firstly, that he was unfairly treated in his initial trial, in that the trial judge intended to give him a sentence far more severe than he was given to expect, when he pled guilty.   This is despite the fact that his plea transcript shows that he knew he could face up to 10 to 15 years in prison and that the court was scrupulous in making him aware of his rights and the implications of his guilty plea.  This claim rests, in essence, on the belief that Polanski has the right to determine what is and is not an appropriate sentence for him to serve, for his own, very serious offences.  The second justification, is that his victim has long wanted to the case to be dropped and has publicly forgiven Polanski.  It is true that she has said that “enough is enough” as well she might, given that every time that the case is reopened, she endures a flurry of media attention on her rape, and is minimised and sometimes even vilified by prominent cultural figures.  Since last year, Whoopi Goldberg has been on American daytime TV saying that it wasn’t “rape-rape” and she has been described as a “hooker” by Gore Vidal in a magazine interview.  While I am in no position to doubt her claims to have forgiven Polanski, her desire to see the matter closed can’t be separated from the hostile attention she has had to endure because of the case, the very situation Polanski was offered such a favourable plea to avoid. 

In essence, what we have seen is a cultural elite use their powerful position to protect one of its members, by intimidating his victim into silence.  He has the influential supporters and the wealth to fund his continued evasion of justice, while remaining in the limelight, and to mount a skilled defence should he ever come to trial.  Prosecuting him seems near impossible so the only route to closure for her is in acquiescence.  This illustrates the reason that her wishes should not be the prime factor in deciding whether the case should be pursued or not.  A just society cannot be maintained by allowing the privileged to use their financial and cultural clout to avoid the consequences of their actions in law.  This would send out the message that people like Roman Polanski can do whatever they like, and the little people, and their most fundamental rights and dignity, simply do not matter.  This is particularly clear when compared to what should have happened.  She should have had her anonymity protected throughout the legal process, he should have been convicted, and jailed, then deported and shunned and drifted off into obscurity – in spite of what a loss this would, undoubtedly, have been to the artistic world

 So, Roman Polanski should be sent back to America to face justice.  In the meantime I have no intention of contributing to his privileged position, during his lifetime, talented director though he may be.  I look forward to the Polanski themed movie-marathon when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Hopefully the law will catch up with him before then.


The unveiling of intolerance

July 15, 2010

I last wrote about veils over three and a half years ago. When I did so, I said that it would hopefully be a while before the subject returned. And it has. Just over three and a half years, to be precise.

France has followed Belgium, parts of Germany, and potentially Holland and Italy in banning the niqab. [for more on the legal status of Muslim dress in Europe, see here]. The niqab is the face veil, and looks a bit like this:

These bans make me uneasy. I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve got a streak of libertarian running through me. I don’t like banning things. Prohibition of minor, trivial items like alcohol, drugs and clothing always seems clunky, counter-productive and illiberal.

Those proposing a ban usually begin by saying that such clothes go against “Western values”. Often the argument goes, “we aren’t able to wear our own clothes in their country”. The Muslim world doesn’t approve of bikinis, therefore we should ban the niqab. Yet this admits that a key Western value is one of tolerance; and another is liberalism – the freedom to do/say/think what we like as long as it causes no harm to others. How does banning the veil fit into these values?

Usually the response is that veils offend people. Apparently, some can feel uncomfortable talking to someone with a face veil. It’s tempting to tell these sort of people to get over themselves. These women might be wearing veils, but they’re hardly monsters, as people would doubtless understand if they actually did talk to them. After all, we can hardly make causing offence a crime, can we?

There is also the feminist argument that the veil is the ultimate symbol of female oppression. This may be the case in other countries, but in a European context the vast majority of women making veils make the choice freely.

An interesting angle on this that I hadn’t considered before came up in the comments on Medhi Hasan’s excellent blog on all this. “8901stephen” said:

Anything that attacks primitive religious superstition [whether Muslim ,Christian or whatever ]should be applauded .Anyway ,instead of wearing the veil these religious nuts can wear T shirts saying“I`m an uneducated peasant with a head full of medieval superstition and a complete ignorance of modern science “.Should give off pretty much the same message … (sic)

I am an atheist. I have no religious convictions whatsoever, and I believe fervently in the separation of church and state. Which is exactly why the state should not be banning religious symbols. It’s why niqabs should not be banned, nurses can wear crosses, and also why certain religious types can say nasty things about homosexuals. They have the right to free speech, just as we have the right to call them idiots for what they’re saying. [As an aside, Henry Porter has said some excellent things on the same topic.]

Banning the veil in France seems like a grotesque over-reaction. It truly represents the tyranny of the majority, when a law can be passed (admittedly with large amounts of public support) which criminalises merely 2,000 of the 5 million Muslim women in France, just for wearing clothes. Policing this new ban will also be difficult. Property tycoon Rachid Nekkaz has started a fund to pay the fines for any woman who is penalised for wearing the niqab in public (the punishment is £125). He’s already put €200,000 into it and is hoping to have €1 million by September. That goal seems realistic – he received €36,000 of donations on the first day of opening his fund.

I’m not sure how anyone who self-defines as a “liberal” could support such a ban. Hopefully no such ban will ever be brought into place in the UK.


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