Anglicans in England have had two sleeps to get used to the idea that there will be female Anglican bishops in England. Much of the celebrating took place on the same day the government announced there are now five women instead of three on the 22 member cabinet.
Most men and women will never be clergy or members of parliament. We can go through our whole lives without caring about equal opportunities for the few who are. Yet, it does matter for all of us in a way we’re often not conscious of.
Politics and priesthood are very visible public service vocations. Clergy and politicians play a noticeable public role in the running of our communities. Rightly or wrongly MPs and bishops are thought of as “in charge.” They are society’s “elders”, now that all good and natural respect for the aged has disappeared.
When people who look like you (whether female, disabled or not white) are absent from a group with a visible and prestigious social function, it sends you a message. It says “you’re not good enough.” You only realise the pressure of that feeling when the group opens up to people who look like you.
We human beings are part of the ape and monkey family. Like our hairy brothers and sisters, we’re intensely status conscious. The hierarchy of alphas and omegas is part of how we see society. It’s something we find very difficult to get away from because it’s part of our biological programming.
It’s easy to kid yourself that you’re not status conscious. Yet it’s in everybody to varying levels. You might not look down on people but you will carry preconceived ideas about what they’re capable of. You will link their capability to their place in the hierarchy. Nobody sees this more than the people who are dismissed as being incapable of doing anything.
Imagine that you have an urgent life or death problem with your finances and you’re looking for someone capable to help you. You run into a room and see a tall handsome 40-year-old man in a smart suit and a short overweight 65-year-old woman in casual clothes.
Most of us, if we’re honest, would head for the alpha male. It wouldn’t occur to us that the woman could be the head of a bank with 40 years of experience behind her. Even today when we see older and overweight women we make assumptions about how they’ve lived.
Most of us, hopefully, would say that the man and the woman were of equal value as human beings. But this is not the same as the capability measure. The capability measure is separate to the conscious assessment of someone’s right to be a full member of society, yet it informs that assessment on a subconscious level.
People who think they believe in equality for all, may still subconsciously give priority to those who they think are the most capable. It’s a throwback to those animal days when our furry ancestors honoured the ones who were most likely to bring home meat or sire strong children.
The severely disabled suffer the weight of people thinking that their assumed reduced capabilities mean they should have less space in society!
When there are women Anglican bishops and more women in high level politics, it will change the public’s preconceptions of what older women are capable of. This will have a knock on effect in the whole of society.
Of course, as Christians, we shouldn’t be associating priesthood or the bishops with power and status at all.
Christ calls us to strip that animal hierarchy out of our minds, and to only see beloved children of God when we look at our fellow human beings. In Christ’s Kingdom there are no alpha males or omega males. Christ is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last letter of the Greek alphabet.
In Christ’s Kingdom there is no rank or status among human beings. We are each of us tied to God’s heart with a fiery golden thread, and that is all the place we need.