Bishops are not mere middle management

Picture of Rowan Williams, outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, a balding white man with a white beard, with a black robe and a barely visible white 'dog collar' insertI’ve been pretty astounded at the tone of the response to the Church of England’s General Synod’s decision to reject the appointment of female bishops on Wednesday. The motion had been supported by the incoming and outgoing Archbishops of Canterbury and passed by two of the three houses — the Bishops and Clergy — but rejected by the Laity. This has led to the suggestion that the church is out of step with the rest of British society, almost making itself irrelevant, and that if it continues to refuse, its 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords should no longer be allowed to do so. Rowan Williams (right), the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, articulated the view of “irrelevance” particularly vociferously.

As (mainstream) Muslims, we do not have any equivalent of priests or bishops; we have various types of religious leaders and the most influential are not the imams who lead prayers but the scholars who answer questions on matters of law and doctrine. They are teachers or explainers, not popes or bishops. We reject the principle that, other than the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), there is any “gatekeeper” between us and God, anyone whose intercession is required for us to achieve success in the Afterlife. While, as is well-known, a prayer-leader imam can only be male if there are males in the congregation (various explanations for this exist), and most Sufi orders do not allow women to be leaders (because in the words of one contemporary shaikh, a Sufi shaikh is an inheritor of the Prophets, who were all men) in theory the other categories of spiritual leader can be male or female. Indeed, in the classical period many women were scholars and taught men in public. However, the matter of whether a woman can be an imam was settled centuries ago and, contrary to the noise made by a small group of fringe activists, there is no debate or controversy about this matter in Islam. While the ruling on married priests in Catholicism may change, there is no likelihood of their ordaining women priests, and even less likelihood in the eastern Orthodox churches.

That is why the question of the Anglican church being “out of step” with society is so irrelevant. A church or other religious organisation is not meant to follow the whims of society, but to lead it and to set an example. The majority of people complaining are, I would imagine, not churchgoers and do not even believe in most, or any, of what the Church teaches, so their views are not even releavant and it stands to reason that they see no fundamental difference between a priest and anyone else who does similar secular roles, such as a registrar, notary or teacher, and between a Bishop and a middle manager in a large company. Priests and bishops are not just notaries and managers, but are meant to be a representation of the person of Jesus (peace be upon him), who is male, and it is reasoned that if one of them was female, then people would not see Christ in them. Similarly our spiritual leaders in Islam have to be male precisely because they are meant to embody the Sunnah of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and not all of that even applies to women. (It is not because women lack authority and therefore men should not be expected to obey them. Men obey their mothers and often other older female relatives in Islam, even as adults.)

The Anglican church should, therefore, not attempt to “follow society” or have the same rules for its clergy as other organisations have for their management. The decision was a democratic one in which representatives of the active participants (rather than the shouters on the sidelines) overruled their spiritual leaders, so if anything, the higher echelons are already more “in step” with British society than their flock. It is, of course, a decision for the nation if we want to disestablish the Church of England and remove their bishops from the Lords (I suspect it will not happen under the present government), but how the church governs itself entirely is not a decision for people who take no interest in it to make.

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