Savi Hensman

Mission, unity and women bishops

By Savi Hensman
July 13, 2012

Many in the Church of England were relieved when, on 9 July 2012, General Synod agreed to adjourn the debate on women bishops. A last-minute change diluting proposed legislation allowing women bishops had deeply dismayed many supporters of women’s ordination.

If the amended proposal had been put to the vote, there was a strong possibility that it would not have got the two-thirds majority required, resulting in a delay of years before the matter could be considered again. The House of Bishops, which had made the change after a vast majority of dioceses had agreed the draft legislation, will discuss the matter further and hopefully bring a more acceptable proposal back to the next Synod gathering.

Space for opponents

Even after the Church of England accepted that, in principle, all forms of ministry should be open to both men and women, change proceeded very slowly out of consideration for those who were opposed. These include some conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, though many other evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are in favour. Over the years, as more churchgoers witnessed the ministry of women deacons and priests and came to believe that the Holy Spirit was at work there, opposition further declined.

It is not of course, always easy to be part of a small minority on any theological issue, and there are genuine practical challenges for those still unwilling to accept that women might be ordained. Yet attempts have been made to create space for them.

The proposals for women bishops which had been discussed by dioceses had already contained generous concessions to the minority of congregations still opposed to women’s ordination. Parishes are already allowed to opt out of being ministered to by women clergy if they request this. In future, if their bishop were a woman, she would have to delegate her responsibilities in that parish to a male bishop.

This may seem extraordinary to those outside the church. In an ordinary workplace, if an employee refused on principle to work under a female manager, he would not be treated with sympathy and given the assurance that a man would be delegated to supervise him instead. If faith groups claim to be especially holy, outsiders might think, surely they should be even more sensitive to the hurt, distortion of human relationships and damage to the psyche that result from discrimination of any kind?

Some non-churchgoers know that, even in the deeply patriarchal world of two thousand years ago, Jesus called and empowered women as well as men, including as witnesses of the resurrection. To them, it may seem all the more baffling that, in today’s world, churches often lag behind the wider community in treating women justly.

Indeed, male priests opposed to women’s ordination are in the privileged position that their own priesthood is generally accepted, while they themselves can (and sometimes do) claim that the ministry of some of their fellow-clergy is not valid. While some try hard to be reasonable and work harmoniously with those they disagree with, others are more confrontational.

However, in the interests of unity, to uphold freedom of conscience, and out of consideration for those who still believe that the Bible or tradition forbid women’s ordained ministry, there has been broad agreement so far about allowing parishes to opt out. Nor are opponents of women’s ordination confined to leading such churches: they are still sometimes appointed as archdeacons or bishops with authority over inclusive congregations and women priests.

“Theological convictions”

For various reasons, some clearer than others, this has not fully satisfied those who do not want women bishops. In trying to make the proposals more acceptable to them, the House of Bishops brought in the controversial amendment. This was aimed at making sure that, where male clergy minister to a parish which has asked for this, “the exercise of ministry by those bishops and priests will be consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women which prompted the issuing of the Letter of Request” (to quote a Church of England news release).

But this is deeply problematic, for various reasons. It not only further undermines women and inclusive men but also involves a sharp break with church tradition, in which a bishop serves all congregations in a geographical area, even if they differ theologically.

As Affirming Catholicism put it, “the idea that parishes should have statutory authority to demand specific provision of oversight according to particular theological views is a dangerous precedent to be setting, both for the Church of England and for the Anglican Communion as a whole.” The amendment “raises significant questions about the credibility of the Church of England’s insistence on the historic episcopate as one of the bases for our ecumenical relationships” and “calls into question the catholic nature of the ecclesiology of the Church of England.”

In the view of these Anglo-Catholics, shared by some others in the Church of England, though “provision must be made for those who cannot accept the sacramental ministry of ordained women... this cannot be at further cost to the ecclesiological integrity of the Church of England.”

On grounds of mission, of deep importance to evangelicals and many others, the amendment also poses significant problems.

Reform, one of the groups campaigning against women’s ordination, names the Rev Angus MacLeay as the Chairman of its trustees. He and his curate at St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, hit the national news headlines in 2010.

To quote the Guardian report:

A vicar has caused outrage among his congregation after urging women to "be silent" and "submit" to their husbands...

[H]e said women should "not speak" if asked a question that could be answered by their husbands and should "submit to their husbands in everything"...

MacLeay's words were too difficult to swallow for the dozens of women who cancelled direct debit subscriptions to the Anglican church and vowed not to return.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail described how:

The apparent lack of obedience of ‘modern women’ was blamed for the high divorce rate. In a sermon entitled ‘Marriage and women’ last Sunday, curate Mark Oden, told the congregation at St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks, Kent: “We know marriage is not working.

“We only need to look at figures – one in four children have divorced parents. Wives, submit to your own husbands.”

It is understood some women parishioners – and even their husbands – have vowed never to attend the church again.

Feeling driven out of one’s church in such circumstances can be deeply hurtful, and it cannot be guaranteed that those in such a situation will find a more welcoming place to worship which is accessible to them, or even feel psychologically ready to try. It may be particularly difficult for parents and godparents who do not want their children exposed to teaching which they believe is profoundly morally wrong.

Many opponents of women’s ordination as bishops are not nearly as extreme. But, if those who are may be entitled to a bishop with the same theological convictions, it is not hard to imagine the headlines that may follow – and the impact on the church’s ministry and mission.

Indeed, there is evidence that churches’ perceived attitude to women is already a significant factor in the decline in Christian belief and practice in England in recent decades. In 2008, University of Derby sociologist Kristin Aune pointed out that churches had on average lost 50,000 women worshippers per annum over the past twenty years, over a million in total, and identified various reasons. These included attitudes to gender, which put many young women with egalitarian values off Christianity.

In contrast, in 2010 Professor Leslie J Francis of the University of Warwick and other researchers found that dioceses with a higher proportion of women clergy tended to grow more or decline less in numbers: “on the average, the better performing dioceses had the highest proportions of female clergy.”

Women’s ordained ministry can encourage all believers, male and female, in their calling as members of a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2.9) witnessing to God’s marvellous and transforming love, and a community in which barriers of ethnicity and gender are broken down in Christ (Galatians 3.28).

What can bishops do?

In 2010, after compromise proposals had been laboriously drawn up by a working party, archbishops moved a last-minute amendment to try to please opponents of women becoming bishops. This fell because it would have seriously undermined the ministry of these bishops and church order, but this led to disappointment among opponents. The latest attempt by senior clergy to intervene on their behalf again raised expectations, and when this failed, it fuelled a sense of victimisation which had increasingly taken hold.

Many now speak as if they have been persecuted and denied a place in the Church of England. This in turn may have intensified frustration among campaigners for inclusion, who may feel that the concessions they have made have been treated as if they count for nothing.

To the credit of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he was apologetic about the bishops’ failure to realise the “hurt and offence” that might result from their amendment. If senior clergy wish to move the Church of England forward to a place where agreement can be reached, it may be helpful for them to shift away from continually attempting to appease opponents of allowing women bishops by making the proposals more and more discriminatory.

Perhaps, while being sensitive to the feelings of hurt among those adamantly opposed to women bishops, they might try to make common cause with the more moderate among them in publicly recognising the concessions that have already been made. Those bishops who really do want the church to be open to women’s ministry at all levels could also do more to affirm women’s ministry publicly and make the case for why allowing women to be bishops would be good.

Both deeper listening and clearer leadership are needed in affirming a vision of an inclusive, mission-oriented church open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


(c) Savi Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on political, religious, Christian and specifically Anglican affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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