Pauline conversion? Bishops and other authorities

I’m not a Christian, so maybe I shouldn’t comment on  the non-decision of the Church of England on whether or not to have female bishops.  But the issue gives a particular twist to the arguments around  how competence is recognised, and so adds a novel dimension to the Paula Principle debate.  And as I come to later in this blog, the arguments recur in surprising places.

I haven’t followed the church  debate in detail, so what follows is musing rather than analysis.  One line of argument from those opposed to women bishops could be that women could technically do the  job perfectly well, but unfortunately for them the theology forbids it.  A different line would be to say that women by their nature are unable to carry out the functions of a bishop.   This is not so much a biological matter (as it is with men not being able to have babies) as a spiritual one.  Interviews with opponents of women bishops showed some who could not accept that a women would be in charge of processes central to their religion such as the administration of sacraments.    No one (I think)  denies that women can be as spiritual as men as individuals, but they cannot muster the necessary spiritual authority to  act as bishops.  Senior positions in the hierarchy cannot therefore be open to them.

As a non-believer I find it hard to reach a position on modernisation in the church.  Most non-believers seem to assume that the church should move with the times, even if they themselves have no stake in it.  But it seems to me that if you are a believer in a faith – by definition non-rational – then there is no necessary logic in favour of ‘moving with the times’ where this means accommodation with external secular trends.    I’d better not go any further down this path, so let’s get back to the interrelation between biology and hierarchy.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee yesterday took evidence on women in the workplace. There were some interesting submissions, and some sad ones.   An independent researcher, Steven Moxon, put forward the view that organisations are hierarchies and women are biologically unfitted to operate at senior levels within hierarrchies.  Even if they could do these kinds of job, the males would be impelled to flaunt their sexual powers, and this would upset the dynamics of senior decision-making.  The sad thing about this is that there is a serious debate to be had about how deep-rooted gendered behaviour is or isn’t (I’ve found Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Susan Pinker’s The Sexual Paradox to be two accessible and well-informed critiques); on how far and how fast we should set out to change it, as parents and as societies; and on what constitutes progress.  Sweeping doctrinal statements simply reinforce binary oppositions.

On the  other hand the testimony of another witness to the Committee, Clare Walker of the Royal Aeronautical Society, had the audience royally impressed.  She reminded us first that in WW2 women flew every kind of plane;  but it was not until 1987 that BA hads its first operational woman pilot, and the RAF didn’t reach this milestone until 1992.  Clare passed her pilot’s test at the age of 50, and then went on to take in helicopters, fixed-wing and multi-engine models  – I slightly lost track here, knowing even less about aircraft than I do about the church, but anyway she knows how to fly a lot of them – and did so,  ‘blowing a great big hole in my children’s inheritance’ she concluded, turning round to look at, I assume, one of the said children.   I know I’d rather have a role model of this kind than an inheritance.


  1. There are many stories of women struggling to learn to become pilots and scoring badly during the tests. Further investigation of their issues highlighted that the problem was with the training no including the information in a form that suited them. Some changes to the training methods saw them gain parity quickly (and in several cases exceed) their male counterparts.

    Now if I could only remember the blog I read all this on a few weeks ago…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *