Ordaining women bishops: safeguards and tangles

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
7 Jun 2012

Last-minute changes have complicated the Church of England’s slow progress towards allowing women to be bishops. After compromise proposals had won wide support, the House of Bishops amended these to try to placate opponents of women’s ordination, but many pro-women campaigners felt betrayed after having already made major concessions, and some think the draft legislation will be unworkable.

Nevertheless, in July 2012, General Synod (the Church of England’s parliament) may well agree the proposal, even if the wording is less than ideal, to avoid further delays.

Women’s ordination is a matter not only of church structures or even justice, important as this is, but also of sharing the good news that “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28).

Diversity of gender, ethnicity and other aspects of identity amongst clergy and elders can also encourage diverse Christians to live boldly as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2.9), helping to transform the world from a place of selfishness, exploitation and violence to one of love, justice and peace.

Furthermore, a church which excludes women from senior leadership may be poorly equipped to challenge the often crude sexism which still blights the lives of so many, as well as putting off those drawn to Christ but repelled by inequality. So having women as well as men as Church of of England bishops could be valuable, provided their ministry is not fundamentally undermined by elaborate arrangements introduced to safeguard those strongly opposed to women’s ordination.

Who needs protection?

When the Church of England began ordaining women, leaders were eager to preserve a space for men ordained at a time when priesthood was all-male and for whom this was still important, and others opposed on theological grounds. These included conservative Anglo-Catholics who believe that women cannot be priests (or that this is reliant on Vatican approval), and conservative evangelicals who believe in male headship in church and family.

The wish to allow space for varying views, to the extent of including those who are not themselves inclusive, is in many ways admirable. But it has sometimes left women clergy unsupported, and increased the risk of a 'church within a church'. The arrangements – enabling congregations to be ministered to by male clergy only – are likely to become even more complicated when women are consecrated as bishops, especially if it is specified that only ordained men who share those reasons for rejecting women’s ordination are acceptable.

As has always been the case for Anglicans, there will be one diocesan bishop per diocese – earlier proposals which might have called this into question were soundly defeated. Nevertheless, the proposed arrangements for church leadership are probably among the most complicated in the world, not only in the Anglican Communion but also among all denominations. This increases the risk of tripping up or getting entangled.

Many bishops are deeply committed to supporting women’s ministry. Yet collectively, the House of Bishops has given the appearance of being most concerned about protecting, as far as possible, the consciences and feelings of the minority who strongly object to women bishops. Meanwhile, less attention has been paid to everyone else’s consciences and feelings, the practicalities of administering a very complicated system and the impact on mission.

For instance, on 21 May 2012, when announcing the changes to draft legislation, a news release on behalf of the Bishops restated that they “will continue not to discriminate in selecting candidates for ordination on the grounds of their theological convictions regarding the admission of women to Holy Orders”.

It would be odd to be treated in a hospital where a third of the surgeons were not recognised as doctors by the head of surgery. Yet women priests will continue to serve under archdeacons or bishops who are hesitant towards, or do not recognise, their ministries.

As now, many such senior clergy will try hard to be fair; but it is a difficult situation. What minimum standards might the women priests they oversee expect, and how might this be ensured? (This, of course, affects congregations too.) It might be helpful for the House of Bishops to consult and issue guidance on this (unless such guidance already exists, in which case it should be better known).

Could the situation ever arise in which a Church of England priest refused communion to a layperson confirmed by a woman bishop? Could a priest who believed in male headship tell children at a church school that wives who did not obey their husbands were sinful, and what could parents and young people do if they were unhappy about this? In areas with maybe three different bishops overseeing different congregations, would it always be clear who was responsible for dealing with child protection issues?

When the Church of England eventually gets round to full acceptance of same-sex unions, if priests and congregations are allowed not only to opt out but also to be overseen by a bishop with similar views on gender and sexuality, the number of alternative bishops could multiply. Church leaders would be well advised to review the principle before then.

Making the new system work

The Church of England is not always good at supporting clergy facing difficulties or dealing constructively with conflict, and problems affecting women’s ministry can be intensified by lack of transparency. It is not simply a question of procedures but also of church culture.

More evident enthusiasm from the most senior clergy about, and thankfulness to God for, women’s ministry, would be welcome, along with acknowledgement of the needs not only of opponents but also of everyone else. It would also be helpful if church leaders could remind all members of the strong theological case for ordaining both women and men. While some churchgoers may continue to hold carefully considered beliefs ruling out women’s ordained ministry, it is important that they at least understand the basis of the Church of England’s position. This applies particularly to clergy.

There would be additional benefits in being reminded of the importance of baptism, both in blessing and calling, and also how problematic it is to ascribe ‘headship’ to a particular set of humans rather than God.

Whether the legislation is passed in July 2012 or at a later date, it is almost inevitable that at some point over the next few years, there will be women bishops in the Church of England. This will not, in itself, overcome all the church’s problems – far from it. However, properly handled, it could enrich and enliven the church in its work of sharing the good news, in word and deed, in twenty-first century England.

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(c) Savi Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator on politics, society, religion and Anglican issues. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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