It was heartening that most of the comment after the announcements, a few weeks ago, of three new suffragan bishops in the church of England did not start by remarking on their hobbies and families, but gifts such as
“ intellectual rigour, and experience of some demanding social contexts” ; someone who “has stimulated ministry and mission ..and… nurtured the vocations of several Readers and had ordinands on placement” or who has “talents in theological and biblical studies.”
Exactly what we need to know about newly appointed bishops – but what grabbed the headlines was that all three are women. And then, there was a Church of England tweet which undid the focus on their gifts and experiences by the vocabulary it used – apparently innocuous until we stop to think about it:
“Female clergy have taken the roles in Stepney, Huntingdon and Shrewsbury……”
Newsprint was more objective: “Suffragans were appointed” or “announced”..so why the word “taken”?
It’s a word we might use in the context of sporting competitions – a team has taken the cup; a cyclist has taken the lead, or when someone physically grasps something rather than having it offered, so it’s not the most appropriate to use when announcing three appointments which were offered, we assume, to the women concerned? Sadly, the suspicion has to be that it links to a feeling, sometimes unconscious, sometimes only too conscious, that in being appointed to positions such as bishop, women are now doing a man out of a job and “taking” the jobs “owed” to men. Each time a women is appointed to a senior position, but particularly as a bishop, someone somewhere will be tweeting or commenting that “it’s only women who are made bishops now” or “all bishops are women now”.
A quick look at the numbers will show that there is still a long way to go before women are even half of the bishops. In the Church of England five out of 42 diocesan bishops are women, and the most recent appointment as a diocesan bishop is a man. 17 out of a total of 75 suffragan bishops are women. Not quite a takeover yet! Since November 2014, when women could be made bishops, eight men have been appointed to diocesan posts and five women, though in the last year the proportion of women being appointed as suffragans has risen so that since late 2014 , seventeen men have been appointed as suffragan bishops and nineteen women (though two of these are now diocesan bishops).
The charges of “women taking over” are linked to perceptions, usually unconscious perceptions, that men are the natural leaders, spokesmen (sic) and decision makers in the church. When women begin taking part in strategic planning, when women are seen leading from the front as bishops and Archdeacons and cathedral deans, or even developing a way of leading in these roles that is not always obviously from the front, then our natural unconscious expectations are challenged and the emotional response is that women are taking over, even though this is nowhere near the truth. Research shows this is the same in almost any organization. Women usually speak less than men in meetings but if they speak for more than a third of the time of the meeting they will be accused of taking over. If a diocese appoints more than one bishop who is also a woman, accusations of “imbalance” are soon made, despite nearly all other dioceses having more than one bishop who is a man. There are still some dioceses where all the senior leadership roles are filled only by men eg Peterborough and Sheffield. It was also pointed out recently that all the principals of theological colleges and courses are men.
Does all this matter? Many are hoping for the day when announcements of new senior church jobs are made without reference to gender. When asked what women can bring to the church, the answer is that they bring their own skills and experiences, each bringing a different set of these and amongst their varied experiences will be some that bringing experiences than men will never bring. What is known is that decision making and leadership are always improved by including as wide a range of views, skills and experiences in the decision making group as possible. It also matters that there are enough women in senior roles in our dioceses to be able to focus on their particular giftings and expertise, rather than being seen as a spokesperson for all women.
It was wonderful to read on that Tuesday a few weeks ago, of the appointment of three new bishops, all of whom happened to be women. But there is still a long way to go before the Church of England can really demonstrate true gender equality. There is even further to go before the numbers of BAME bishops and church leaders even match the number of women. One challenge is to find ways of actively encouraging a more diverse clergy and more diverse church leadership in the church, so that it more closely resembles the God-given diversity of the world.
There is a remarkable connection between Hexham and Ely: Etheldreda gave the land for the building of Hexham Abbey and in Ely she founded a monastery on the site which is now Ely Cathedral. I believe this legacy of generosity and prayerful commitment is rooted in the life-affirming, encouraging and inspiring love of God which we see in Jesus Christ,