Diana Johnson: Jesus treated women as equals, so isn’t it time the Church did the same?

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I PAY tribute to the women and men who have been fighting for justice and equality in the Church of England for many years. However it is a great pity that we are still having battles in the Church of England about equality in 2012.

Many people might be quite shocked to realise that the established Church of this country has been allowed to opt out of equality legislation. It has been able to opt out of its duties under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and under the Equality Act 2010. I believe that if we have an established Church of England, that Church should have regard to, and follow, the laws of the land as well.

This debate is close to International Women’s Day on March 8 and at a time when we are looking back to the suffragette campaign, which was reaching its peak 100 years ago. The campaign for women bishops follows the campaign for women priests, which reached a successful conclusion in 1992.

The legislation in relation to women priests went through in November 1992, but it specifically said that women could not become bishops. The reform of 1992 has been a huge success.

There are now 3,000 women priests. The talents and abilities of both women and men are now being recognised and utilised by the Church. There are four female deans of cathedrals and many others in senior roles. Despite many predictions to the contrary, that has not led to the collapse of the established Church or to any other existential disaster befalling mankind – or even womankind.

The same would be true, I believe, of moving forward to having women bishops. Women priests have entered the mainstream culture of our country, far beyond just spawning The Vicar of Dibley.

Like many great progressive reforms, it has put new wine into old bottles. I want to celebrate and build on that success. We know that being a bishop is a very difficult job to undertake and the Church needs to choose bishops with a wide range of gifts, skills and experience. It is inconceivable that those gifts and skills and that experience will be found just in the male sex. The Church could benefit greatly from having the opportunity to select from both men and women. That is right and fair.

The argument, the theological debate, about women bishops is as it was for women priests. It concerns the interpretation of women’s role in the great Christian teachings. Those against equality believe that God created the man to lead and that the woman was there to be his helper. Some hold that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. They believe that women should not be in a leadership role over men. Therefore women are somehow seen as secondary to men. Those in favour of women bishops more commonly draw inspiration from the arguments that both men and women were created equal in God’s image.

The role of women in the history of Christianity, from the time of Jesus, has often been painted out of the picture, just as happened with black people and the tremendous role that they have played in our history. However, if we look at the Bible, we know that Jesus treated women fairly. He spoke to them as equals, and of course it is always recognised that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection. In the early Christian Church, until about 400 AD, female priests and congregation leaders were very common.

Those who draw on the literal interpretation of the Bible apply it word for word to the modern world. That can be dangerous, but they also do it based on a selective interpretation of the text – one that I think is based on worldly interests and prejudice.

Whatever happens in the politics and obscure committees of the Church of England, the real world and the United Kingdom have changed enormously, especially during the past century. The real world looks like leaving the Church of England behind. Women are now far more educated, are more likely to have a job outside the home, can vote equally with men and are no longer the property of their fathers and passed to their husbands on marrying.

There is much further to go on equality issues. There is a need for more women in Parliament, at the Bar and in the boardroom. However, women have broken through as leaders in society. We are no longer there just to make the tea. In 1979, we had the first woman Prime Minister; and Margaret Thatcher duly proved that a woman could do the job of leader in society as badly as any man.

We are looking at a process of change. God was said to have created the earth in seven days. It is taking a great deal longer for the tortuous internal machinery of the Church of England to introduce the simple reform for women bishops.

There is an idea that we are moving far too fast. There are those who claim to support the cause of women bishops, but who believe that we should not proceed too far or too fast. With them, the decision always has to be taken in the future, and decisive moves forward always seem to be a few years ahead.

However Church of England is a broad Church, and we want it to go forward as a broad Church. I certainly want it to be relevant to the society we live in. I want it to promote faith, decency and good work in the wider community. It is obviously important to respect its past, but we should not live in the past; we should look to how the Church can develop and serve the needs of the community now.

We need to serve the people of today and tomorrow, but we are perhaps being held back a little by some of yesterday’s people. A broad Church should not be held back by narrow interests. I hope we will see the first woman bishop very soon.

* Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.