Women bishops and the church’s core purpose

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
2 Feb 2012

The Church of England’s decisions about women bishops are likely to have a major impact on its mission as well as its ministry. If the church appears to be reluctant to accept and fully use women’s gifts, attempts to attract and involve more people across a wide age-range may be undermined.

Research findings: cause for concern

Findings from the 28th British Social Attitudes survey were published in December 2011. It showed a serious decline in religious belief and practice in recent decades. 31per cent in 1983 did not belong to a religion, compared to 50 per cent now (64 per cent of those aged 18-24).

There are various reasons for this. But evidence suggests that the widespread perception that Christianity treats women as inferior is one of the factors.

For instance in 2008, Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization, edited by social scientist Kristin Aune of the University of Derby and two others, was published by Ashgate. This revealed that, in England, Christian churches had lost over a million women worshippers since 1989, in part because of their perceived attitudes.

“Because of its focus on female empowerment, young women are attracted by Wicca, popularised by the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Dr Aune observed. “Young women tend to express egalitarian values and dislike the traditionalism and hierarchies they imagine are integral to the church.”

In contrast, there is evidence valuing women’s gifts has a positive effect on mission. For instance, a 2010 University of Warwick paper, 'Statistics for evidence-based policy in the Church of England: Predicting diocesan performance', by Leslie J Francis and colleagues, examined the factors linked to differences in diocesan performance during the Decade of Evangelism, from 1991-2000. In dioceses with a higher proportion of women clergy, the Church of England tended to enjoy more growth or slower decline.

Taking into account the fall in church membership and involvement, and even nominal Christianity, such findings deserve serious consideration.

The debate over women bishops

There is wide public support for allowing women to be bishops in the Church of England. A YouGov online survey in July 2010 of Britons aged 18 or over found that 63 per cent were in favour and only 10 per cent against, while the remaining 27 per cent expressed no opinion. By the end of 2011, after dioceses had discussed the issue, it had become apparent that there was overwhelming support among churchgoers too.

Moving forward on this matter would greatly assist the church in mission and ministry in England today. The decision on whether women should be eligible to be bishops in the Church of England (or senior clergy or elders in other churches) does not simply affect potential candidates, but has far wider implications.

The role of bishops is not merely administrative: they are there to nurture and support other clergy in their calling and, most importantly, to enable the priesthood of all believers, in all their diversity, so that the whole people of God in each locality can witness in word and deed to the good news of Christ.

The exclusion of any section of the Christian community from being even considered as bishops can have a demoralising effect on those who, at parish level, are seeking to live out their faith within an often sceptical society, and to help to build God’s realm of justice and peace in an deeply unequal and sometimes harsh world.

There has been growing recognition that both men and women are made in God’s image and that, in Christ, barriers are broken down: in the words of Paul’s letter to the 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.”

Yet the church has often failed to communicate this effectively to the wider world, in part because this is not fully reflected in its own life. Some churches seem unsure how to respond when the Holy Spirit calls and empowers women.

There is an understandable wish in church circles to accommodate the small minority of churchgoers who still do not accept women’s ordained ministry, and proposals have allowed generous provision to enable them to be ministered to by solely male clergy, including the delegation of pastoral functions to male bishops.

Some are uneasy with this but have accepted it because of the desire to move forward together. However there is a risk that concessions could be extended so far that the role of women bishops was seriously undermined, and ordination of women to the episcopate might become unworkable. This would be a tragedy, not only for the Church of England but also for Christian witness nationally.

However, a positive decision by the Church of England to open up all orders of ministry to women as well as men could promote mission, especially if used as an opportunity to share the theological reasoning behind the move. For, now as much as two thousand years ago, Christians believe that the living Christ continues to invite men and women, people of different ages, ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds, to follow, be transformed, join in changing the world and become inheritors of eternal life.

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© Savi Hensman is a respected Christian commentator on religion, politics, theology and social policy. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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