Pollution and Witchcraft of Female Clergy

Pollution and Witchcraft of Female Clergy

Sharon Jagger

During the 1970s and 1980s, a bruising gendered battle gripped England as it unfolded into a public drama that transfixed the nation’s press.  The issue of equality in ecclesiastic employment was the veneer, but the philosophical undertow was the struggle over women’s access to sacred space, their symbolic representation and recognition of their full humanness.  The stakes were high.  The campaign for women to be ordained as priests in the Church of England mobilised the ‘monstrous regiment of women’ who finally found their voice and lost their patience.  Women’s vocations, their sense of fulfilment and worth, depended on the outcome of the decades-long debate and, in 1992, the campaign climactically succeeded by only  two votes in the General Synod, the Church’s governing body.

You would be forgiven for thinking the controversy has long since melted away, that it was a storm in an ecclesiastical teacup, a marginal and quirky argument about who can perform a handful of rituals.  However, my research with female clergy, ranging from the newly ordained to retirees from all Anglican traditions, suggests that their position in the Church of England remains ambivalent and that wearing the clerical collar is far from synonymous with gender equality.  To be fair, the Church has come a long way and the welcome has warmed up since the initial frosty reception reported by the first cohorts of female clergy (Barr and Barr, 2001).  By 2015 women made up around 27% of paid clergy and in the same year Libby Lane became the Church’s first female bishop.  It was this latter event, however, that reprised of one of the more pernicious-sounding arguments against women’s inclusion into the priesthood, an argument that not only still lingers but underpins the continued gendered structural division in the institution – the doctrine of taint.

‘Taint’ is a potent word; contaminate, pollute, befoul are its synonyms.   Attach it to discourse that denies women a place in priesthood and it seems likely that it will be met with resistance, if not deep offence.  I should emphasise that the Church hierarchy distances itself from this doctrine (Maltby, 1998), which is unofficially promulgated by those still actively against female ordination.  The ecclesiology of this argument needs to be briefly established before we unpack the semiotics.  The doctrine of taint reveres the tradition of male bishops ordaining male clergy, known as the Apostolic Succession, a lineage supposedly dating back to the early Church.  Breaking this male line by ordaining a woman through the laying on of hands is thought to nullify the bishop’s sacramental efficacy – he loses his spiritual powers.  That ordaining a woman uniquely calls into question a bishop’s purity and sacramental assurance should set feminist senses tingling.  It is difficult not to conclude that at the heart of the doctrine of taint is the notion of woman as the source of pollution, that in her essence she is the despoiler of spiritual powers.

My conversations with women clergy reveal a quiet, but firm, resistance to this view of themselves and, verbally swatting away the doctrine of taint, most reject it as magical thinking which is weak in theology. The Church hierarchy in 1992, on the other hand, did not dismiss the anti-women’s ordination arguments so easily – and this is where it gets real.  The Act of Synod, the juridical process to allow women’s ordination, simultaneously created an ecclesiastical haven for those who believe women cannot be priests, embedding gender inequality into the very structure of the Church.  Today, there are churches operating within this protected structure where only male priests are accepted and where tainted bishops are eschewed.  ‘Flying Bishops, who have never ordained a woman and remain untainted, are on hand to provide pastoral oversight for these enclave parishes.  Known as the two integrities, this structural duality continually reproduces ambivalence for women priests, leaving them corralled into one, albeit much larger, side of the structure, and requiring them to theologically justify their presence or else circumvent suspicions over their status altogether.

The doctrine of taint and related gendered theologies may appear to be an anthropological curiosity that would not look out of place in Mary Douglas’ work, Purity and Danger (1966). Our need for purity and order, she suggests, is often embedded in ritualistic activity, laying down a trail of clues to deeper processes.  Whilst these rituals can be little acts of quotidian significance, Christianity formalises purification on an epic scale through the Eucharist (the ritual of bread and wine also known as Communion), where Christ’s death as expiation of all sin (or impurity) for all time is memorialised or re-enacted.  In the established Church the priest alone has the spiritual authority to provide sacramental efficacy.  Now we begin to see the philosophical underbelly of the doctrine of taint.  For some, women cannot occupy this spiritual space; it is a masculine privilege to stand symbolically in the place of the male Christ – in persona Christi.  This subverts Douglas’ argument, since the point of this theological stance is to protect the ritual itself from the pollution of women, the ‘problematic’ feminine.  Male priests have never needed to consider their bodies at the altar, since they are assured of being in imago dei – in the image of God – and the masculinised symbols of the divine have always provided male subjectivity.  Women have, over the years, been required to fight for the same.

What happens when a woman stands at the altar, speaking the liturgy, blessing wine and bread?  Through my conversations with women priests, I am piecing together a picture of deeply held fears, projected onto women, of their polluting power and ‘involuntary witchcraft’ (Douglas, 1966).  One interviewee described having to negotiate these fears under the shadow of the two integrities; ‘As if they are the keepers of the tradition and we are the evil destroyers.  Usurpers.  How powerful are we?  That by our very presence we can taint, by our very presence, how powerful are we?’   There is no ritual in the Church that can purify women of their ability to taint, to rid them of this feral magic, since it is embodied, though thoroughly obfuscated by theology and ecclesiology.

Female clergy are unruly women in a masculinised symbol system and whilst distaste for their immanence may be symbolically described, it is felt in material ways.  An interviewee from a rural parish told me how she was turned down for a job in a parish because neighbouring male priests would consider the altar deconsecrated by her.  Several women clergy have told me how members of congregations have refused to accept the bread and wine from them during the Eucharist and almost all the interviewees have experienced contention over how they embody both their priestly identity and their femininity.  Bodily taboos seem magnified in the context of ritualistic purity.  Talking about menstruation, one ordained woman felt the power of the symbolic; ‘there’s still sometimes that whole sense of taint.  It’s tied up with that, the dirtiness.  Impurity.  With ritual impurity.’  Another, an Anglo-Catholic priest, speculated about symbolic bloodletting and sacrifice featured in the Eucharist (or Mass), juxtaposing the heroic, purifying sacrificial male blood with the impurity associated with women’s bleeding.  She wondered aloud if ‘Mass [is] some sort of menstruation envy’.  This picks up, with delightful irony, the unconscious witchery that women, particularly in sacred space, are seen to possess in bleeding their dirty blood on white albs and altar cloths.

My research begins with the view that religious institutions are a product of the society in which they reside, being made up from the same social and cultural processes.  So, the argument over women’s place behind the altar is a crack in culture’s carapace, into which we can peer to see what lurks beneath.   It is not enough to accept the doctrine of taint as an obscure obsession with how the Apostles handed on their batons.  I am suggesting the doctrine of taint, and its manifestation in the two integrities, mirrors wider cultural fears of female pollution.  The rejection of priested women is based on the rejection of all women by fundamentally questioning their subjectivity.  As I research the experiences of clergy who are women, I hear how they see possibilities to challenge the perception of feminine sacrilege, to chip away at the masculinised symbol system each time they stand behind the altar.  Feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether’s (1975) words still resonate: ‘the symbolic imagery of masculinity and femininity…has reached a contradictory impasse which makes the clergy either the final embattled bastion of insecure male ego or else the place where the psycho-symbolic dynamic of this entire tradition must be re-thought’ (p. 78).  My research seeks to understand whether female clergy can shift the symbolic ground enough to shed their polluting power.  How yielding is the ‘entire tradition’?  I speculate that the most significant portent of this would be the dismantling of the Church’s two integrities.  It seems to me, whilst ever there is structural legitimacy given to the othering of women, the Church of England can only be a masculinised realm, ruled by the male subject and populated by phantasms of female priests, still liminal, still awaiting full reception of their priesthood.


Sharon Jagger is a PhD researcher at the University of York, in the Centre for Women’s Studies, studying the ways in which female clergy impact the masculinised symbols and language of the Church of England.  She is also an activist and musician and regularly tours feminist shows round the country.  She writes a feminist blog and is a contributor to The Conversation.