Geoffrey Kirk finds it very hard indeed to believe a recent report by an anonymous woman priest that she truly is questioned about menstruation
When, long ago, Professor George Caird was dragging us through the Letter to the Romans, rough breathing by rough breathing, I confess that it never occurred to me that in order to discharge my function as a minister of the established church I would need (as well as all this) to become an expert on menstrual taboos. But so it seems.
Step forward the Revd Rebecca Holl-ingsworth, who since her ordination to the priesthood in 2007 has suffered years of misogynistic persecution, ending in the gratuitous insult of being relegated to a job as a university chaplain. Or rather, step backward; for Stephanie Rafanelli, who recounts this saga of sexism in a lengthy article in the Telegraph’s girlie-mag Stella [29 Mar 2009], also reveals that Hollingsworth is not her real name.
Revd What’s-her-name? has a positive catalogue of complaints about the likes of you and me. ‘I have constant low-grade sexual harassment, from questions about whether I’m menstruating before a service to sexually inappropriate remarks, to comments about the way I look. I sometimes wear patterned tights or earrings or natural make-up – and am told I should dress differently When I reported this to my dean I was laughed off and told that I was being ‘an emotional woman?
Let me be blunt: I have problems believing her. Of course, there is no way of knowing who her ‘dean is. But if it is her Area Dean (probably a he-dean), the poor fellow is certainly in line by now for a course of Sexism Awareness Counselling by an ‘expert’ expensively retained for the purpose. Before long, I fear, he will find himself little more than a statistic in a report on the ‘Institutional Sexism’ of his diocese. If it is her Dean of Women’s Ministry (certainly a she-dean), then I applaud her courage and perspicacity, but fear that her job is in danger.
What makes me doubt Revd What’s-her-name’s? veracity, however, is none of this. It is the reference to menstruation.
I first addressed a public meeting on the subject of the ordination of women in June 1973. Since then I have spoken to meetings without number – Parochial Church Councils, Deanery Synods, Diocesan Synods. I have met with literally thousands of opponents. I have met and talked with every significant opponent in the Anglican Communion and beyond, from every shade of churchmanship from Graham Leonard to Peter Jensen. And never, during the whole of that time (nearly twenty times longer than Revd What’s-her-name?’s entire ministry), have I heard mention of menstruation.
Which is not, of course, to say that menstrual taboos have not featured largely in discussion of women’s ordination: merely to say that the subject has exclusively been of interest to one side of the argument. There are, of course, articles – whole websites even – devoted to the relevance of menstrual taboos to contemporary religion; but they are, almost exclusively, written by and for proponents. If you want to track the intellectual history of this obsession, just Google it. What you will find is a consistent and repetitive citation of radical feminist authorities. The internet, it appears, has been taken over by Rosemary Rad-ford Reuther and her friends. Ordinary Christians, whatever their attitude to the ordination of women, betray no such specialist interest. Revd What’s-her-name? has moved in areas of the CofE that I have never plumbed, if she has encountered people – clergy or laity – who have ever read, much less felt obliged to act upon, the ritual prohibitions of the Book of Leviticus.
To grasp this is to learn something important about the texture of the arguments advanced to support the ordination of women. They are basically, fundamentally and almost exclusively, ethical a priori arguments. Women’s ordination is right, not because Scripture and the tradition demand it, but because justice requires it. And because justice requires it, Scripture and the tradition must demand it.
This ethical a priori imperative is morally corrosive; that is to say, those who embrace it suppose themselves to be licensed to get away with almost anything. It ensures, above all, three things: that the theological arguments of opponents cannot be taken seriously; that they and their arguments will be grossly and unfairly caricatured; and that arguments and evidence thought to be in favour of the innovation will be handled indulgently and uncritically. So the opinions of opponents are treated not as contributions to an open debate, but as the effusions of a malign psychological condition (variously characterized as ‘misogyny’ or ‘fear of women’). Opponents themselves are characterized as clinging to outmoded thought patterns and primitive taboos, which modernity has long since left behind.
Into this pattern of wilful self-deception menstrual taboos fit nicely. They are of no conceivable interest to opponents, who have arguments that are both reasoned and substantial. But they accord well with the psychopathology of those in favour, by portraying the opposition as made up of tribal Neanderthals still caught up in a pre-scientific world of witchcraft and superstition.
I very much fear that Revd What’s-her-name? is the tragic victim of this ethical a priori syndrome’. She probably believes, quite genuinely, that she has been abused in this way; for, as her dean allegedly pointed out, she is quick to take offence. And equally quick, one observes, to clamber onto the moral high ground. Those who have adopted an ethical a priori position are quite unashamedly censorious: they patronize contemporaries and condemn whole swathes of human history to obloquy and scorn.
Rowan Williams, who changed his mind about women’s ordination in the late Seventies/early Eighties did so, it is often said, on theological grounds: he had become convinced by the christological arguments first advanced in the Sixties by the American patristics scholar Richard Norris. But there was another significant factor, which he revealed in conversation with Angela Tilby ‘I had to change after looking around at my own side and seeing the company I was keeping.’
One can only wonder that a man of wisdom and integrity should throw in his lot with those who so consistently falsify history and traduce those who disagree with them.