Women and the Church Logo

The national press, on the morning of July 15th 2014, showed beaming pictures of a number of the WATCH committee celebrating the passing of the legislation which opened all orders of the Church of England’s ministry to women. The actual legislation was simple; it removed the need to be male in order to be ordained. Alongside this gender equality legislation came the Five Guiding Principles, set out by the House of Bishops as a way forward for the church that now ordains women to all orders. These principles were not a product of debate, nor were they technically voted on. They were presented to synod as a way of holding together the differing positions on what women can do. They are now meant to be clearly affirmed by all in ministry and all ordinands are required to assent to them.

Embedded in these principles is the concept of mutual flourishing. These are the two final principles which speak of flourishing.

  • Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  • Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

Who Flourishes?

The concern for some of us in the church is whether the reasonable commitment to enable ‘those who are unable to receive the ministry of women’ to flourish, has come at the cost of the flourishing of others. Does current practice promote the mutual flourishing of the whole Church of England? In particular, there is a concern that, whereas appointments have been made specifically to cater for those in the first category, little has been done to change appointment systems to enable women to flourish.

Thus we note that the position of Provisional Episcopal Visitors (Flying Bishop’s), established after the admission of women to the priesthood, has been retained. We still have two Bishops who need to hold to a particular position, on not accepting the ministry of women, in order to hold that office. We understand the reasoning for these Bishops and the role they have played in enabling certain groups within the church to flourish.

After the vote in July 2016 a new Bishopric was created specifically to be held by a man who holds to one, very narrow, understanding of women’s anthropology and roles in the church. The Bishop of Maidstone was justified on the grounds that he will enable one group within the church, who cannot receive the ministry of women, to flourish. Justification for his position is harder to understand ecclesiologically but, this new post was accepted on the grounds of helping a particular constituency within the church to flourish.

Meanwhile, it has been possible for experienced women to be considered for the post of diocesan bishop alongside men. However, the appointment system has been left unchanged with no review of whether the system is fair to women. In fact by ensuring that the voice of those who cannot receive the ministry of women is heard, the senior appointment process is inherently unfair to women candidates. In the name of ‘balance’ there are usually a number of members of the CNC and diocesan vacancy in see committees who represent those who cannot receive the ministry of women. Thus, in order to gain the needed majority of votes, a woman candidate will have to either convince some of these individuals to vote against their conscience, or be fortunate enough to convince every other member of the committee.

There has been no attempt to make special provision for women. No sense that it might have been helpful to redress the lack of women in senior positions. No attempt to take advice from other organisations about how appointment procedures may need to be reviewed if women are to flourish.

The Sheffield situation

Recently the announcement of the new Bishop of Sheffield was made. The press release made no comment about the fact that he is a bishop who cannot accept the ministry of women and will not ordain them as priests. In fact, those of us who have raised concerns that this bishop will now be presiding over a diocese where nearly a third of the clergy are women, have been told that his views on women are unimportant. Worse, we have been consistently told that this is a working out of the five guiding principles; mutual flourishment in practice.

So the question is, how is his appointment to a diocese, where nearly third of the incumbents are women, promoting mutual flourishing? For twenty years this has been a diocese in which women are ordained. These women have up until this point simply been priests in the diocese, regardless of gender. Now they are women priests. The incoming Bishop reassures them that he will work to the utmost limits of his theological position where they are concerned but, this is little comfort to those who are used to being treated in the same way as their male colleagues; as those whose priesthood their bishop truly recognises.

The women of the diocese were not asked how this would help them flourish. Neither of the Archbishops has offered any kind of support to them as they deal with the sense of hurt and disillusionment as, yet again, the Church of England expects women to be the ones who accept discrimination in the name of theological conviction.

The House of Bishops Declaration, which lays out clear guidelines for the provision necessary for those who cannot accept the ministry of a woman bishop, has nothing coherent to say to the women clergy of Sheffield diocese as they struggle to come to terms with the prospect of a Bishop who cannot fully accept their ministry. It seems that the hierarchy of the church has deep pastoral concerns for those who cannot accept the ministry of women and no real pastoral care for women who find their ministry fundamentally undermined by the theological views of the one with whom they are to share a cure of souls.

There is no provision for the male clergy who are deeply committed to a church in which men and women minister as equals. No provision for the lay members of the diocese who value the ministry of women clergy. Those many, many clergy and laity in the diocese who are theologically committed to the full inclusion of women in the church will no longer have a diocesan bishop who shares their theological conviction.

So, as we all now sign up to the five guiding principles, we at WATCH ask, are they working for the mutual flourishing of all or simply for those who do not accept the full inclusion of women in the priesthood and episcopacy of the church? Who is concerned for the flourishing of women clergy? What provision is to be made for those whose theological conviction about women’s orders is not shared with the one who has been given spiritual oversight of them? What does it actually mean to try and share the cure of souls with someone who cannot receive the sacraments you administer to those souls? Is it time to ask whether these five guiding principles actually promote the mutual flourishing of the whole church?

The Bishops have expressed their concern about the falling number of young women ordinands. The continuing lack of concern for those women who are ministering across the church might provide a clue. Today’s younger women have been taught that they should not put up with discrimination and they cannot understand why they should work for a church which does. The passing of the legislation to allow women to be bishops was a good news story. Those outside the church rejoiced. Parliament made special provision in the hope that the bench of bishops may reflect the change. Yet, from within the church, women are still made to feel that they are not quite good enough and if they complain about this treatment they are criticised. In the world beyond the church women would not find themselves expected to work for a man who did not quite think they were the same as their male colleague. Yet, the women of Sheffield are told this is all about mutual flourishing.

WATCH exists to challenge the church where it fails to treat women properly, to encourage the church to value the hard work and deep commitment so many women give and to remind those in authority that the majority of those in the church and those we are trying to reach with the good news of Jesus, believe that women have equal rights and therefore the church has a duty to treat its women employees with respect not expecting them to compromise their integrity for the sake of one man’s theological convictions.

Revd Canon Dr Emma Percy

Chair of WATCH