Feeling at home in the Synod

By Daniel Finkelstein, December 2, 2012

It's an odd thing, when you are called Finkelstein, to find yourself commenting on the internal debates of the Church of England. But such was my fate - both on television and in print - when the Synod made its decision not to allow women to become Bishop.

It was, I felt, inappropriate to suggest that the Church's big intellectual error had been made at around the time of the crucifixion and that being regarded as the messiah isn't much of a job for a Jewish boy. Nor is being a carpenter, for that matter.

But as I gave it a little thought I realised there was quite a lot in the whole affair that was relevant to me as a Jew. In fact, what is going on in the Church of England is going on in the Jewish community, too.

Religious observance in this country is diminishing. You would think that, as this happens, religions would become more open, more questioning, more reform minded as they seek to halt the decline. But no.

There are two reasons why not. The first is obvious from observing political parties. As parties get smaller, the leadership realises they need to reform in order to survive. But the very reduction in membership is what stops the reform. A small overall membership gives much greater leverage to small organised factions. It requires determined leadership and a fair bit of luck to overcome them.

Processes that combat decline are blamed for the decline

The second reason is deeply psychological. We protect ourselves against criticism, or facts that contradict our beliefs by holding to those beliefs even more strongly.

The more an idea or movement is in decline, the more militant those that adhere to it become. The very process of reform and openness designed to combat decline is blamed for the decline. A resistance to outside forces is seen as a barrier against destruction. And those who object most strongly to change define themselves as the true believers.

As religious reformers struggle against the tide of secularism they are seen as well-meaning failures, still taking on water as others batten down the hatches.

Both these processes were at work in the Synod last week. A small group was able to stop the majority from achieving the change it sought. This was more than an organisational failure for the majority. The fundamentalists succeeded in persuading themselves and others that theirs was the true interpretation of the faith, and that anything else constituted surrender to modernism. There are obvious parallels with this within our own community. But I want to go a bit further.

The argument within the church is a very familiar one to Jews. It boils down to whether the modern ideas of equality and equal respect should be accorded any religious weight. The position of Jewish traditionalists has two parts to it. The first is that the whole structure of religious observance would collapse if traditional thinking were to accommodate what is simply modern fashion. The response to this is obvious. Equality for women is much more than simply fashion.

Equality for women is a late, but nonetheless profound, understanding achieved (or in the process of being achieved) by mankind. It is the sort of deep wisdom that we pray to achieve. To reject that enlightenment when it finally comes is not to protect observance, it is to make a mockery of it. It is to suggest that it is pointless. It is simply not true to suggest that Orthodoxy cannot accommodate such change. It can.

The second part of the traditionalist argument is that equality for women does not mean allowing men and women to do the same thing. Men and women have equal but different roles. This is a familiar, elegant step around a tricky subject. In synagogue, I see women sitting high up in a gallery, unable to take part in the leadership of the service, and I think- that's different. But equal?

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of 'The Times'

Last updated: 10:45am, December 2 2012