The latest in a long line of upsetting news for women, and women in religion, has hit us square in the face in the past 24 hours. The Christian Union at Bristol University has insisted that women cannot speak at their doubtless fun-filled meetings. If, however, they are accompanied by their husband, then of course they may.
The university's feminist society labelled the decision "hugely discriminatory, deeply offensive and sexist to women"; no argument from me there, but just apply this quote to religion in general, whose history is mired in inescapably revolting attitudes towards women, and you need not change the phraseology. The insistence that the Church ought to change its ways in this regard is like asking a vegetarian to eat a fillet of steak. It is also a relatively recent development and will always be swimming against an enormous tide of misogyny founded in Scripture.
Will religion, then, ever be able to shake off its subordination and discrimination towards women?
The Christian Union's move comes in the immediate wake of - and may well have been inspired by - almost 50% of the Church of England's House of Laity deciding that permitting women bishops would be a step too far in the name of equality. The fact that the vote made the news at all demonstrates how much progress has been made in the Church over the years and how appallingly its sexism has become enshrined.
Rowan Williams is not of course particularly at fault in this debate - supporting as he did the introduction of female bishops - but he is guilty of uttering the emptiest platitude imaginable, saying that he had "prayed" that the vote would be passed according to his wishes. Williams here of course means 'prayed' in the literal sense; given that one would assume that Justin Welby, the newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury, also said his prayers, God managed therefore to ignore the interests of two of the most senior members of his own Church. It is difficult not to ask why Williams et al. do not feel that this is a sign that God is vehemently against the introduction of women bishops, when presumably the opposite result would have lead them to the conclusion that he was in favour. The clergymen don't believe in divine intervention only when it suits them, surely...
At the heart of this issue lies an extremely problematic and unanswerable question: what does it mean to be a true Christian? It is very difficult not to conclude that, based on the overwhelming number of sexist passages in the Bible, the Christian doctrine is by definition one that views women as inferior to men. It is also difficult not to comment that passages in the Bible can be used to validate almost any conceivable viewpoint and that if one were desperate enough one could argue the case that the Bible condones rather than advocates sexism; but this seems rather like shaping Scripture to suits one's needs, not basing one's life on what Scripture teaches.
Those wishing to be a member of a Church taking the Bible as its inspiration are perfectly within their rights to demand equal treatment of women but it seems rather obvious that to implement this equal treatment is to act in direct opposition to the codes of conduct established unambiguously in a book supposedly inspired by a divine (and chauvinistically male) creator. There do exist, I am very aware, feminist Christians, just as there exist numerous homosexual Christians, but these are unenviable positions to hold. From exactly what do these people believe they are drawing inspiration and comfort? Why are the terms 'feminist' and 'Christian' not irreconcilable?
The number of biblical references betraying disgust towards women and the workings of their bodies is extraordinary, but it ought not to surprise us: it is, after all, a book cobbled together entirely by men living in a barbaric and ignorant period of history, during which societies were governed largely by violence, a technique with which men are infamously more familiar. The role of women in Bronze Age culture was to bear children and little else, and, though the Church likes to avoid the issue, there are numerous biblical commands and injunctions for women to be raped and treated like property. Ephesians 5:22 explicitly tells us that wives must submit to their husbands as to the Lord, as does Colossians 3:18 and Peter 3:1; Matthew 5:32 makes clear that a husband can divorce his wife if she is unfaithful, but never is the corollary stated; 1 Corinthians 11:9 tells us that woman was created "for man"; in 11:3 we learn that the husband is the head of the wife; Paul famously states in 1 Timothy 2:12 that he does not "permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent"; and Genesis 3:6, in which Eve eats the fruit of knowledge, could be argued to have been the incitement to treat women as inferior for thousands of years.
We would all like to see women treated equally in the Church. The indisputable and extremely ugly problem, however, is that the biggest hurdle standing in the way of this equal treatment becoming a reality is the very books on which the Church bases its conduct in the first place.