Savi Hensman

Welcoming women's ministry

By Savi Hensman
June 27, 2010

The Church of England is sometimes generous to minorities.

General Synod, the national decision-making body, resolved in 1975 that it considered there were no fundamental objections to ordaining women as priests. By then, some other denominations had long recognised that all forms of ministry should be open to both men and women.

But the Church of England waited a generation before any women became priests, and went to great lengths to create space for the small minority strongly opposed to women’s ordination. If a visitor were to stray into certain Church of England parish churches even today, they would see no evidence that women clergy existed.

It has taken another generation to move forward on the ordination of women as bishops. After a long process in which various options were examined and discussed, a committee proposed a way forward in May 2010 which would allow such churches to continue to have only male clergy passing through their doors. Even if their bishop was a woman, she would have to delegate functions such as confirmations to a male bishop. This was backed by the House of Bishops.

Though the proposal, due to go before Synod in early July 2010, required major concessions by those who had worked for women’s ordination, they agreed, though some felt unhappy that women bishops would be treated differently from their male counterparts. As Women and the Church explained, it had “always campaigned for the simplest possible legislation for women bishops” which “would have signalled that the Church now values women as much as men. What is being proposed falls short of this ideal.”

However, for some 'traditionalists' ardently opposed to women’s ordination, the proposal still meant recognising women as bishops and so was a step too far. To please them, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York put forward a complicated proposal in June, involving “co-ordinate jurisdiction”. A male bishop, nominated to provide leadership and pastoral care to local churches unwilling to recognise a woman bishop, would not be delegated by her to act in her place: instead “both the diocesan and the nominated bishop would possess ‘ordinary jurisdiction’”.

Though well-intentioned, this was confusing and could create the impression that every consecrated woman had to share her role with a 'proper' male bishop, offending not only women clergy but also a different kind of 'traditionalist' believing that there should only be one diocesan bishop in each diocese, as has long been Anglican practice. What is more, the amendment would be tabled at the last possible moment so that Synod members would barely have time to read and absorb it, let alone propose amendments.

Not surprisingly, some have felt hurt and undermined, and if the Archbishops get their way, some women who might make excellent priests and indeed bishops, may be put off from pursuing the ordained ministry. There is evidence that already the Church of England’s image (along with that of some other churches) is driving sizeable numbers of lay women away and putting off potential members. In 2008, the sociologist Dr Kristin Aune, estimated that 50,000 women a year were leaving congregations because they felt the church was not relevant to their lives: "Young women tend to express egalitarian values and dislike the traditionalism and hierarchies they imagine are integral to the church.” Men and boys unwilling to be in spaces where women are unequal may also be put off.

The damage however may be even more far-reaching. Quite apart from the unfairness of treating women as inferior, to some Christians the problem touches on the very nature of the church and Christian faith. To treat some people as second-class is to dishonour a Creator who made all humankind in the divine image, a Redeemer whose self-giving love offers fullness of life to all and a Spirit who, like the wind, cannot be tamed, generously bestowing sometimes unexpected gifts.

And such unequal treatment undermines the whole church’s calling to care for the needy and challenge the world by witnessing to the possibility of a new way of life in which none are exploited or marginalised. To behave as if a cleaner struggling to get by on low pay and care for her children or elderly relatives is as important as a millionaire banker, or that a destitute survivor of domestic violence or a boy trying to break free of macho gang culture matters as much as a top politician – or wealthy potential donor – is hard. A clear stance on women’s acceptability in all forms of ministry can empower lay women, men and youth in our own vital ministry and mission.

It is sad that a compromise cannot be found that is acceptable to everyone, but sometimes this is impossible. At the end of the day, the church is called to witness to the reality that, in St Paul’s phrase in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.


© Savitri Hensman works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate and regular columnist. A version of this article will also appear in her regular Guardian Comment is Free column:

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