Why blacks shouldn’t be priests

Abstract: If saying blacks shouldn’t be priests is racist, why is saying women shouldn’t be priests, not misogynist?…

I have a confession to make: I’ve misled you. Well, only to a certain degree. You see this is not really about why blacks shouldn’t be priests because, obviously, I cannot think of a single reason why they shouldn’t be. But your reaction to the title of this piece is central to its theme and potential impact. And if you were drawn to the title because of some expected discourse on the matter of priests, you won’t be disappointed. I’ll get to them later.

But let me first remain with the theme of the title, and let me ask you this: can you think of any reason why blacks shouldn’t be allowed to be priests? What about bishops, or rabbis, or mullahs? Of course not; the very idea is preposterous, not to mention blatantly racist. Now let me ask you this: can you think of any reason why women shouldn’t be allowed to be priests or bishops or rabbis or mullahs? And if so, why isn’t it sexist or, to be more accurate, misogynist to think so? The phrase ‘double-standards’ comes to mind.

Every 10 years the Anglican Church – the largest Protestant Church grouping – sees its leaders get together on the invite of the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss matters affecting the Anglican Church and to ensure its continued cohesion. Bishops and archbishops from all over the world converge on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent in England and thrash out various issues.

Lately, there have been two issues that have divided the Anglican Church – homosexuality and the ordination of women bishops. This year these two issues proved so divisive that a number of bishops – many from Africa – refused to even attend the Lambeth Conference.

Homosexuality continues to be a thorny issue in many societies, and deserves honest debate; but not at this particular juncture. It was the other issue that caught my enquiring eye. I was struck by how it was that in the 21st Century the, arguably, more liberal-minded Anglican Church was still riddled with archaic thinking around the suitability of women to held senior office. That forced me to examine all three of the major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and their attitudes towards women.

Before I get there, let’s all agree on something: for a person strong of faith, his or her religious persuasion provides the fundamental moral code for interacting with the environment and the people around them. These codes bind communities who share belief systems and, importantly, provide the moral building blocks for the education of their children.

Let’s agree on another thing: outside of their belief in one God and the pivotal role of Abraham in their genealogy, the three main monotheistic religions disagree on many central tenets; sufficiently so to fuel a centuries-old simmering tension between them that constantly explodes into a barrage of savage bloodshed.

However, there is one other thing they do share: their firm belief on the role of women within their leadership structures. Judaism, Islam and the more formal Christian structures – Catholicism and Anglicanism – all agree that a woman’s place is a critical one – in the home and in the community – but not in any significant position of religious leadership. A woman can be the cohesive strength behind a family, even, to a certain degree, be the ‘head’ of a family unit. Similarly, a woman can become an influential figure within a community, but lead a congregation in prayer and hold council? Not really. Issue edicts upon which men should act? Not likely. Become Pope? Definitely not!

Now let me return to the issue of a religion as a community’s moral code. What kind of message are we sending our children if, socially, we demand equality before the law, but, religiously, we entrench the mindset that women are subservient to men? What takes precedence – a modern constitution or an archaic text?

Let’s be realistic – it’ll be a long-time before all men consider all women equal. Outside of religion, centuries-old repressive social dogma dressed up as ‘culture’ have ensured that the mindset of most men still harbour the genuine belief that women are nothing more than objects for various forms of service. A change in such a mindset will be gradual unless there’s a dramatic shift in the more formal structures that underpin it. In short, such attitudes will remain firmly embedded in the psyche of men until such time as powerful religious authorities shift them, saying, ‘hey, things have changed’.

So where do we start? The Lambeth Conference is as good a place as any. It’s a highlight of the Anglican calendar – an event that occurs once every 10 years; and a moment in history for one of the world’s most influential religious bodies to make significant decisions that will resonate around the globe. This is an opportunity for the Anglican Church to make a bold step that will take it into the 21st Century.

But will they? The Lambeth Conference officially finishes tomorrow, and I’m willing to bet that at the close of proceedings, every bishop or archbishop will return to his diocese for another ten years happy in the knowledge that his position will not be taken by a woman. In the wings, keeping a curious eye on any developments, the respective leaders of the other monotheistic religions will heave a collective sigh of relief and think, “well if they’re not going to do it, why should we”. And millions and millions of women around the world will face a further foreseeable future as workers in the eyes of their religious authorities, and not leaders.

For me, it is such a pity that religions that wield so much influence on the minds of their respective flocks; and which have at their heart so much nobility and good for their fellow man, can still embrace philosophies that discriminate against women. Is there no scope for the interpretation of their respective founding texts to recognise and respect the true equality of women? Clearly not.

Originally published in the Sunday Times, 17 August 2008