Caitlin Moran said once that the problem with sexism now was that it resembled Meryl Streep. In much the same way that Meryl Streep so effectively melts into her roles, such that hours after you’ve watched a movie starring her, you bolt upright from a dead sleep and exclaim “OH MY GOD. THAT’S WHO THAT WAS.” in sudden recognition; so too sexism has become skilled at melting into the backdrop. We don’t really have to overcome outright barriers like prohibitions against female ordination (in most places.). What we have instead are barriers so subtle, that you have a vague feeling of something being…wrong. And then, hours later, you awake as if from a nightmare and yell, “OH MY GOD. IT WAS SEXISM THE WHOLE TIME.”
Frankly, dealing with the outright barriers was often easier. Or at least, more clear-cut.
At the moment, much virtual ink is being spilled over several recent dioceses offering all-female slates for episcopal elections. The Living Church has run several articles: the first of which was ably deconstructed on a factual basis by Crusty Old Dean. (Go read what he wrote, if you haven’t yet.)
I don’t know that I have much by way of additional facts to add to this discussion. That ground seems to be well-covered. Indeed, as COD says, all female slates are not new at all. If any of the diocesan slates had been for a suffragan post, no one would have noticed that the slate was all-female. Lest we forget our (recent) history, the reason we have suffragan bishops at all in this church is so that white diocesan bishops did not have to cross lines of segregation. One of the saints from my ordaining diocese, James Solomon Russell, was approached numerous times to accept a job as suffragan bishop, to oversee the black churches in Arkansas and North Carolina, but refused. He thought he could do more good for his fellow former slaves, running a college and planting churches. (He planted thirty seven, by the way, all over south-central Virginia. Dude was a rockstar.)
In more modern times, we’ve changed that somewhat. Now, if you take a good look at suffragan slates, the church still tends to replicate that pattern, but with all “minority” groups. The diocesan bishop will be a straight white man, and the various suffragans will be a woman! A person of color! Just so you can mix it up. (This also has been happening with multi-staff clergy churches. Even when the rector is a woman, there is frequently someone, somewhere, at some point, in the process who discourages the rector from hiring “another” woman, because how will the men feel?)
My point is not that diversity is bad, but that diversity, replicated without paying attention to power dynamics, is hollow, fruitless, and ultimately unworthy of the Kingdom.
What we are seeing, in these new slates, and why, I think they are now troubling some folks, is that women are actually in positions of power. Not token power, and not isolated power–actual, normalized power. And whoo boy, is that a big shift. It’s one thing when you have one or two women in the House of Bishops–even when you elect one of them to be the Presiding Bishop. If you only have one or two, then they’re easily outnumbered! They are easy to dismiss–their opinions not those of a part of the church, but just “the woman bishop.” Nothing has to change, not really. They’re still a novelty– and so much so that a major publication in the church can still call the primate of the church ugly names, and not suffer for it.
Start adding to that number, though…and the church might actually have to change. The system might actually have to shift. And that is a deeply startling thought.
Remember Pentecost? There is so much beauty in that image, of a bustling cosmopolitan Jerusalem, with pilgrims from every corner of the earth, all talking past each other in their variety of languages, as the Spirit slowly brings them together. But what strikes me about that story is that the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t change the foreigners–the pilgrims, the visitors don’t change language. The disciples do. The disciples are changed by the working of the Spirit so that they can spread the Gospel in an understandable way. They give up their power of being understood even to themselves. They even give up the power of being dignified! (“You must be drunk.” “Absolutely not! It’s only 9am!”)
The Spirit always, always asks the church to forsake power in order to include those whom God calls. The onus isn’t on those coming in; it’s on us. And, let us recall that God has been calling women and people of color, and literally everyone to spread the gospel since this whole church adventure started. Until our leadership looks like the ranks of humanity, we haven’t followed adequately where God is calling us as an institution. And until THAT happens, we need to open our gates, hand over our power, and get ready for some change.