Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Men bishops only need apply

with 5 comments

English: Logo of the Church of England

The Church of England has voted in favour of retaining the status quo: it will allow men bishops only.

There’s a sentence you won’t find in any newspaper today. Not only because it sounds as if it were written by a child, but because I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be reading about ‘male bishops’ or a ‘male bishop’.

So why are the terms ‘woman bishop’ and ‘women bishops’ being used so ubiquitously by the media in their coverage of this story?

The noun ‘woman’ can be used as a gratuitous modifier, as previously explained, and its use in relation to female bishops has the same uneasy, patronising whiff about it. I fear that when women are finally allowed promotion through the ranks, the modifier will cling on for grim life, along with the suggestion that a woman cannot really, if we’re honest, be a ‘proper’ bishop.

It’s a habit the press need to break now. Otherwise, when the day comes, there will be bishops and there will be women bishops. Mark my words.

Stylistically, it’s very sloppy journalism, too. Why refer to ‘women bishops’ and ‘male bishops’ in the same sentence or paragraph, as I’ve read today?

Consistency, consistency, uniformity.

Follow that mantra, and you won’t go far wrong.


5 Responses

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  1. Sharp, precise and perceptive. On a day when I thought we were perhaps living a couple of centuries back, your prose has made me feel just that little bit better. Thank you.


    21/11/2012 at 4:20 pm

  2. I think it may even be used because “woman” is employed as a coded pejorative, where “female” is neutral. The male-dominated profession of journalism is resistant to the idea of having women as church leaders, so it’s used the way Americans refer to “woman drivers” (bad drivers).

    We have elected female bishops in the Episcopal Church, our variant of the C of E, since 1989. Since then they’ve also been elected in Canada and New Zealand and other places. I suppose Blighty will have to be satisfied for now with the providence of the other two Cosmic Mothers – Earth and God.

    Invisible Mikey

    25/11/2012 at 8:13 pm

    • Hi, Mikey

      ‘Coded pejorative’ is an excellent and apt phrase. Even where the term ‘woman bishop’ is used apparently unthinkingly, it may still signal the writer’s underlying attitude. At the very least it’s lazy, uncritical repetition — not exactly a desirable attribute in a journalist.

      I was interested to hear about female bishops in the Episcopal Church. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments.


      25/11/2012 at 8:43 pm

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