The Church of England and women: a rare moment of clarity?

By Fran Porter
21 Nov 2012

The recent decision of the Church of England not to admit women as bishops is a moment of clarity. It is a lifting of a veil, an opportunity to see things as they really are.

For all the talk, however sincere, about maintaining both church unity and individual consciences, what has been – and continues to be – at the heart of the disagreement, is the Church of England’s attitude to women. And not just to its own female members, but to all women.

The Church of England has been trying to hold together within its boundaries a diversity of views about women. Those who believe women can and should be not only priests but also bishops, and those who do not. Everyone has been living with the 1993 accommodations that saw women admitted to the priesthood while, at the same time, allowing those parishes, priests and bishops that opposed women’s admission to function by having as much or as little contact as they chose with the institutional machinery that served women’s priesting and ministry. These accommodations were not time limited, but designed to enable the Church of England to continue to be inclusive both of those who believed women could and should be priests and those who did not.

It was these accommodations that made it possible for the church to have women priests. And, it appears, it is because of dissatisfaction (on both sides) with accommodations regarding women bishops that women have not been admitted to the episcopate today.

At the end of the day – at the end of this particular day – what we have is a situation created by a church that has for the past 20 years encouraged into its leadership (as distinct from its membership) those who continue to believe that women by nature and divine ordinance are unsuited to priestly office.

For some, femaleness carries the risk of corrupting sacramental vocation because the act of ordaining a woman, let alone being ordained by a woman, breaks apostolic succession, through the taint of women’s embodiment. For some, women are by divine decree followers not leaders, subject to authority not bearers of authority.

In both cases, women as female persons are differently situated before God. They cannot preside over the sacraments; they require a male mediator. Not just some women, but all women – because they are women.

Three years ago I wrote about the connections between the Church of England’s debates about female deficiencies regarding the priesthood and women’s continued social and economic inequality. [1] Those arguments are still relevant. My concern today is not with the Church of England as an institution and how this vote will impact on how it is perceived. I am concerned about women, those within the Church of England and those without. I am concerned about what is being said about women.

Initial reactions indicate that many people are wondering what should happen now – indeed, asking, what can happen now? I am not an Anglican, but if I were involved in the formal institutional structures then I would be suggesting that an appropriate response to what has happened today is for those bishops, clergy, dioceses, and parishes who support women being admitted to the episcopate to focus not on the institution, but on women. I would suggest they find ways to demonstrate their advocacy of women’s personhood. In church, parish, neighbourhood, community project, charitable enterprise, global cause, equality campaign, health programme, literacy work, mothers' group, women’s aid, girls’ organisation – contribute consciously and deliberately to women’s wellbeing.

Worry less about the Church of England’s reputation and work more towards an affirmation of women. Let that be your witness.

Reference:

[1] Fran Porter, 'Women's dignity and the church's tainted love' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10403

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© Fran Porter is a freelance social and theological researcher, writer and teacher. Her interests are in socially engaged theology and feminist engagement with theology, church culture, biblical studies and hermeneutics. Her books include It Will Not Be Taken Away From Her: A Feminist Engagement with Women's Christian Experience and Changing Women, Changing World: Evangelical Women in Church, Community and Politics.

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