Women and the Church Logo

Over these last weeks, questions about the appointment of the Bishop of Burnley as the new Bishop of Sheffield have been asked in the media and debated on social media. The website SAME (Sheffield Action on Ministry Equality https://shefminequal.wordpress.com) offers a good round up of the discussion. It is deeply sad that such a debate is happening in this way and our prayers are for all those affected. There are many statements made about how this appointment is ‘balance’ for the church, or ‘what we signed up for in 2014’ and even ‘the only way we could have women bishops’. The head of communications for the Church of England even stated in an article in the Yorkshire Post ‘we have ten women bishops … 10 to one is a good score for those whose desire is to keep score against their opponents’. (March 4 2017)

Part of the reason that this debate is going on in public is because this situation was not covered in the House of Bishops’ Declaration which accompanied the 2014 legislation. That document sets out very carefully how those who cannot receive the ministry of women are to be enabled to flourish, if they find themselves in a diocese with a bishop who is a woman. There are even structures for people to flourish in a diocese with a male bishop who, because he ordains women, they cannot be in full communion with. Importantly for this debate, in either of these cases, the bishop, even if she is a woman, does not query the full validity of the ordination and sacraments of any of her clergy.

The declaration does not address the question of how women clergy flourish in a diocese where the bishop cannot fully accept their orders and their sacraments. It does not address the issue of a diocesan bishop being a member of The Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda. It does not address the situation when there is a change in a diocese which previously had a diocesan bishop who did ordain women to one who cannot. The implication of this omission is either, that the Bishops did not feel this mattered, or they did not envisage this happening.

Clearly, what we are now seeing is that it does matter. Church House statistics which we have analysed at WATCH (http://womenandthechurch.org/news/watch-developments-womens-ministry-2016/) show that the dioceses which have a bishop who is not able to accept the priestly ministry of women are, not surprisingly, those with the least women in incumbent positions. Women’s ministry flourishes where it is affirmed.

The House of Bishops’ Declaration does have a clause that allows a diocese to state that they would like a bishop who does or does not ordain women. One of the questions we and others have asked of the Prime Minister, and the Independent Reviewer, is whether this was clearly explained to the diocese of Sheffield when the statement of needs was drawn up. Many in Sheffield did not know that addressing this question should have been part of the process. So far we have had no replies.

And so we come on to the question of balance. The suggestion that ‘we have ten women bishops so its evening things up a bit to have a traditionalist’ is not just crass, but also inaccurate. The debate is about the role of a diocesan bishop. The numbers therefore look very different. There are 2 women diocesan bishops. There are currently 2 diocesan bishops who do not ordain women, +Philip would make that 3. There are also 3 special bishops ordained because of their traditional views on male only ordination. As I wrote in an earlier piece, much has been done to ensure that those who cannot receive the ministry of women can continue to flourish in the Church of England; this debate is how women flourish.

As women have found, time and again, it can be hard to be the subject of a debate in which you are seen as the problem. So we do have deep sympathy for +Philip at this time and we pray for him. We do not think he should have been put into a situation where the ramifications of his appointment do not seem to be thought through or talked through with those it impacts on. Some on social media seem to think that the CNC would have discussed this at length and would have identified the issues and ways to address them. Sadly, that does not seem to be how our appointments system works.

The five guiding principles affirm that the church has made up its mind on the issue of women and holy orders. The legislation passed in 2014 removed the need for candidates to the office of deacon, priest or bishop, to be male. Our synodic system ensures that changes are not made until we have two thirds of all 3 houses agreeing. Alongside the legislation, the guiding principles affirmed the place of the minority who could not embrace this change and provisions have been made to allow them to flourish in the church. What it does not say is that this means they will be serving as diocesan bishops.

The problem with the language of ‘balance’, as it is used by some, is that it positions women as some kind of theological position to be held in balance with those whose theological position means they cannot accept women’s ministry fully. Women are not a theological position. They are part of the goodness of God’s creation; human beings made in the image of God. They hold a rich variety of theological positions. They are Anglo-Catholic, evangelical, liberal and conservative. Some have little interest in theology and others read and write it. In this way they are rather like men.

What they have in common is the experience of human life embodied as women and in this they share with a large percentage of the human race. A balance in the House of Bishops will come when there are a similar number of women as men, holding a variety of views, representing something of the variety of the women in and beyond the church.

This week we mark International Women’s Day and we remember that in so many parts of our world women are marginalised and oppressed. The church needs to be part of the good news for women; accepting them in their rich variety and welcoming the fact that women, like men, respond to the calling of God and bear witness to God’s loving purposes in the church and in the world.