Hidden Figures is an inspiring and challenging film which deals with a trio of African American women who work for NASA in the early 1960’s. It documents their struggles to thrive in their chosen professions. Through their eyes we explored three issues: segregation between blacks and whites, women being taken seriously in a highly technical profession and how competence and achievement transcend gender and race.
Within NASA there were segregated facilities ranging from toilets, lunch rooms, coffee pots, offices and libraries. As one character rose in prominence she heard a recurring phrase, “But, but, there’s no protocol for a woman to attend that meeting”, Another faced a gender and racial barrier to her getting the respect and education she needed to be an engineer. Another faced a refusal to be taken as a supervisor of workers of all races rather than just African Americans.
A key truth we were asked to confront was that when you segregate based on basic human attributes, when we deny people the opportunity to participate based on basic human attributes; we will never be at our best as humans. Our achievements will always be less than they could be.
Most oppressive systems try to hide behind the idea of “separate but equal”. Segregated facilities are not equal facilities. Equality means having access to the same things and resources regardless of where they were provided. In the case of the American South, people could argue that society offered equality because it educated African American children in their own schools just as Whites had theirs. They had their own section on buses, restaurants, theatres; what more did they want?
In Hidden Figures a character goes to the “white” section of the library to find a book on computer programming. When challenged that she should be in the “coloured” section of the library, she replied that “the book I need isn’t in that part of the library”. That’s what they want: equality of access to everything white people took for granted.
Segregation turned my thoughts to the current debate in the church about Bishop Philip North and his decision to step down as the Bishop of Sheffield designate. The row started when Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford called out the Bishop of Sheffield designate to either quit his role in “The Society”, an organisation committed to traditional Catholicism within the CofE (promoting a theology that women cannot be Bishops or Priests) or decline the nomination of Sheffield because he would have to treat 1/3 of his clergy as non-priests based on their gender.
In 1994 the law of the land changed to allow women to be priests. In 2014 the law of the land changed to allow women to be bishops. In making the latter law there was a recognition that no longer would women be excluded from full ministry in the church. At the same time there was a recognition that a minority of lay people and clergy couldn’t theologically accept this and would now feel vulnerable and would need protection in order to still feel part of the church and “flourish”.
The Church came up with 5 guiding principles to attempt this accommodation and flourishing which you can see here: http://forwardinfaith.com/uploads/The5GuidingPrinciples_for_web.pdf
Why do these provisions need to be made? You can see here the Society’s reasoning for why women are a “problem” for them: http://forwardinfaith.com/jscripts/tiny_mce/plugins/imagemanager/files/4_Women_Priests_for_print.pdf
While the Church must accept women’s ordained ministry as deacons, priests and bishops those who oppose this are to be seen as holding a theological position of equal validity and are to be equally accommodated. Those who hold those positions must be allowed to have the least interactions with ordained women in authority. to aid this the church laid on an alternative hierarchy to care for them without any added cost or obligation to them. In short they are allowed to remain separate but equal.
Bishop North is often described as a gifted preacher, evangelist, advocate for the poor and all around great candidate to be a key leader in the Church. But he is also on the board of the Society which actively promulgates the doctrine that women should not be ordained as priests or consecrated as bishops.
The church concocted these principles while trying to square a circle. That’s why we focus on all he has to offer as a bishop, as a leader, as a friend of the poor. In order to accept women’s ministry in general and to encourage it he must see women not as priests but as deacons and leaders. Increasingly we speak of clergy in terms of leadership. We measure this by attendance numbers, income and busyness. As long as women’s ministry is couched in terms of leadership they are just another bunch of parish leaders, doing good things for the gospel.
The wheels only come off when sacraments and authority is raised. Don’t ask him to receive communion from these leaders or to join in their consecration when they become bishops. As long as he can stick to leadership functions he can blur the gender/priest issue. In this way he can flourish as a leader, those who oppose women’s ordination can flourish and those he works with can flourish as leaders. If we stick to priestly ministry being about leadership and production, we’re fine. But the ordination service doesn’t talk about us being leaders. It talks about us being watchmen and shepherds and pastors and protectors of doctrine and people who offer sacraments. We lead, but in a way that is hard to measure.
By all accounts, including from women who know his ministry, he is very supportive of women’s ministry, encourages vocations and wants to be a resource to all his clergy in the church’s mission to share Christ with the nation. I guess that means he will pray with women clergy, worship with them, encourage their ministries but will not he won’t ordain them, he will not lay on hands at the consecration of women bishop and he can’t receive communion consecrated by a woman. Obviously there is a conflict in holding that position while trying to also be a Bishop to all in his care in the Diocese.
When we share the good news of Christ, part of that invitation is to join the Church, the body of Christ. We already struggle to provide credibility in that invitation. People assume that we exclude whole categories of people because they are somehow impaired in a way that is not recognised outside the walls of the church. I feel that whatever balancing act Bishop Philip is doing in his head will just look silly to someone not inoculated with the church. and it looks silly to those of us who are.
And this is what brings us back to this issues raised in Hidden Figures. Segregation always diminishes us and our efforts to be genuinely human. And people spot segregation very quickly.
Bishop North will always be in a position that will always be a problematic one for him; he can’t stop women being in ordained ministry but he can refuse to participate in ordaining them and recognising them as priests.
That refusal to participate, that refusal which requires the protection of five principles and an expensive alternative structure of church hierarchy is a form of self-imposed segregation. This “mutual flourishing” people keep talking about is an impossibility as long as it is underpinned by a policy of separate but equal. Two track institutions never work. And when someone is segregated they are, by definition, impaired.
By self-segregating and refusing to be in sacramental communion with all his clergy, Bishop North surely needs to accept that by choosing those positions he cannot be all that he wants to be i.e. a Diocesan Bishop in a national church where women are ordained. He will always have difficulty in assuring those outside the Church they can have confidence in his commitment to their flourishing as a potential Lord and an influential presence in Sheffield.
I’m sure that Bishop Philip would have been a fine bishop in the practice of leadership and local mission and pastoral care and will work well with others in all those things that don’t require sacraments. But in humility and honesty there needs to be an admission that while he remains a member of “The Society” and holds his view on the ordination of women there would always be a genuine disconnection between him and his clergy. In the end, participating in separate but equal practices will always impair him hat impairment will always be self-inflicted.