On 16 December 2012 a young woman was beaten and gang raped in the suburbs of Delhi. She died 13 days later from the brain and gastrointestinal injuries she suffered as a result of the assault.

Although this incident is not unique or tragically even unusual in our world today, for some reason it attracted global attention and generated an unprecedented sense of outrage.  Authorities in India have responded with pledges of greater commitment to women’s rights and tougher laws to bring offenders to justice. These moves have been welcomed but there is also a strong sense that on their own they will not succeed in making a lasting difference. What is needed is a robust and sustained challenge to the underpinning culture which normalises and legitimates such actions.

Andrew North, the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, covered the Delhi rape protests on 30 December and managed to capture what may be destined to become an iconic image: ‘... an Indian man sitting at one of the protests with a candle at his feet, quietly showing solidarity with the brutally murdered girl. And in front of him he had a placard which read, ‘Let us look at ourselves first’.

What happened in Delhi was rightly met with universal media condemnation but it was quickly followed by a second wave of reflection. ‘Is Delhi so different from Steubenville?’ wondered Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, commenting on events which took place last August in Steubenville, Ohio, when members of a High School football team gang raped an unconscious teenager and photographed her violation on their mobile phones.

Emer O’Toole in the Guardian pointed out that British and American media outlets ‘have luridly cited rape statistics in India, intended to ‘shock’ their Western audiences, while ignoring statistics in England, Wales and America that are much more grim. Although a woman walking down the street in England or Wales might experience less harassment she is actually four times more likely to be raped there than she is in Delhi.’

Gender violence is one of the world’s most common human rights abuses. According to the World Health Organisation women worldwide are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined. That violence takes many forms, from female abortion and infanticide to domestic abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking, rape and murder. It is also patterned in many lesser behaviours such as exclusion from education, withholding of freedom of movement and association, and economic disadvantage including discrimination in the work place.  This is a global problem because gendered power relationships are a global phenomenon. But many of us choose to remain blind to what takes place in our midst.

Where does it stem from, this seemingly unstoppable tide of aggression towards women which has so disfigured human history and continues to threaten the wellbeing and lives of millions of women and girls today?  Three interlocking ideas are responsible: firstly that female human nature is inferior to male human nature because it is defective or tainted in some way; secondly that female human beings are less valuable than male human beings and therefore not so entitled to respect, protection, nurture and care; and thirdly that women should always be under the authority and domination of men.

This constellation of ideas is common to many cultures and most religions and runs like a dark thread through our Christian faith inheritance too. It has surfaced repeatedly in debates on the place of women in the life of the Church, most notably in the doctrine of ‘taint’ put forward by traditionalist Catholics and in the ‘headship’ arguments advanced by Conservative Evangelicals. It is entirely at odds with the good news of abundant life for everyone that Jesus Christ proclaimed.

Within the Church of England defending the rights of some individuals and groups to discriminate against women currently has a high priority and is connected in many minds with upholding freedom and diversity. By contrast witnessing to the equal dignity and worth of women in society has a low priority. It is not a moral imperative for us. Opponents of women’s ministry have worked hard to alter our perceptions in this way, to present gender discrimination as a respectable alternative position within the life of the Church and themselves as victims of intolerance. This reversal of values seems perverse and incomprehensible, even morally repugnant, to those outside the Church.

I voted for the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure last November, having persuaded myself that it was the best of the options available to us. I wanted to respect the views of others and make gracious provision for those who tell us they are struggling with this issue for theological reasons. I particularly wanted to find a way for the Church of England to break out of the current impasse and move forward with the pressing missional task that is before us.

I have come to understand that what I did was wrong. I was supporting a lesser good at the expense of a greater good. We cannot place the needs and wishes of a small number of our own members above our vocation to declare a gospel of justice and mercy for all human beings. We cannot achieve our goal of having women in the House of Bishops on such terms.

Gender inequality does not make for love, joy and peace, it makes for violence, degradation and abuse. This needs to be said loud and clear. Although some individuals and some Christian communities may tell us that they experience it as benign or even beneficial in their own lives it is impossible for us as a Church to ignore the wider reality or deny what the real fruits of these views and attitudes are for women worldwide and for society. On 20 November I heard ‘headship’ arguments repeatedly advanced on the floor of the Synod in a way that I had not heard articulated for many years.  I found it spine chilling. I am now convinced that at the heart of these arguments there lies a very great evil which all men and women of compassion and goodwill ought to resist. This is what I now intend to do.

In recent months people have been asking: how was the Holy Spirit working among us last November? Does God after all wish us to limit the ways in which women serve him within the Church? Is this a sign that we should be making yet more provision which excludes and marginalises women? I understand these events in a different way. What we were preparing to do was wrong and would have contributed to the suffering and misery of yet more women, to the ongoing dislocation of relationships between the sexes, and to the ills of society. I believe that we were prevented by the Holy Spirit, for which I thank God. I believe we have been given a second chance.

Many of us will have studied, at school or university, some of the great freedom movements of history such as the abolition of the slave trade or the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, movements which have revolutionised, restored and redeemed the relationships between human beings. We are rightly proud of these achievements and of those who worked to make them possible. Perhaps it is part of our fantasy about ourselves that if we had lived our lives at those times we too would have witnessed courageously against what was taking place and let nothing stand in our way. But hindsight can be misleading. What seems simple and obvious in retrospect may have appeared far less clearcut at the time. The opposite case would have been loudly argued by those with vested interests. Scripture would have been quoted, tradition appealed to. Compromises would have been suggested. Is it possible that we too could have ended up supporting what society and our own consciences have since condemned?

History is being made every day and we ourselves are making it. Each of us plays our chosen part. In years to come I hope to be able to look back on one of the significant issues of my own day and feel proud of the part that I played. I have resolved to vote against any Measure, legislation or provision which is discriminatory against women in any way. That would include the Measure put before us last November or anything of a similar nature. It probably means I will not be able to vote for anything which the new working group or the House of Bishops comes up with next unless it is a single clause measure supported by informal pastoral provision. I will use what influence I have to dissuade others too.  If the result is that the Church of England does not have women bishops then so be it. It will be our loss and our disgrace. Perhaps we are not worthy of them yet.

Standing out against gender discrimination is not a task for another day, it is a task for today, and it is urgent. It is far and away more important than giving a few women the opportunity to become bishops, vital though that is for the Church and greatly though we long for it to happen. The challenge for the Church of England is not ‘to find a formula by which discrimination can be tolerated so that the Church can have women bishops’. It is 'to find a way of modelling in our common life the values we proclaim’. If we cannot grasp this nettle we will sacrifice our privileged position as the spiritual guardian of our national life and fatally undermine our ability to preach the gospel in our generation.

The Rev'd Canon Jane Charman

February 2013

Jane Charman is Director of Learning for Discipleship and Ministry in Salisbury Diocese, Honorary Canon of Salisbury Cathedral and a member of General Synod.

This blog post reflects the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of WATCH