Gospel ministry should be honest and open. Hidden practices and apparent deception should not be in the armoury of those seeking to bring people to Christ. In a recent talk Sir Philip Mawer, the former Independent Reviewer, spoke of the principles which underpin the 2014 settlement on women bishops: simplicity, reciprocity and mutuality, and the overarching need to work together for the sake of the gospel and unity of the church. He also spoke of the need to build trust and confidence in the settlement. In 2019 it’s time to address the elephant in the room: the ongoing reluctance of some clergy and leaders of churches which subscribe to the doctrine of male headship and/or priesthood to be open and honest with their church members and others about their position and practice.
Under the 2014 settlement a PCC may consult with the parish and then pass a resolution to send a letter of request to their bishop requesting alternative (male) oversight. The situation that has developed is that a great many churches which have done this are routinely withholding that information from both existing and potential church members, on websites and in written communications.
The publicly and easily available evidence confirms that this is happening up and down the country: our recent survey shows that the websites of almost 90% of churches which have passed resolutions fail to mention it: there is nothing in the ‘About Us’, ‘What We Believe’, ‘FAQs’ or ‘New Here’ sections. Yet websites are the primary way in which people obtain information about churches prior to attending them. Information about a church’s theological position should be on the website in an accessible, obvious place, and in readily comprehensible language. The problem also affects hardcopy documents. Our research included visits to conservative evangelical churches to collect every piece of written information available to church members and visitors. On no occasion has the information contained anything about the church’s position on women. This position is so important to the churches’ leaders, it will be recalled, that the oversight of the diocesan bishop would not do, but apparently it is not important enough for prospective church members to know about, though they will be personally and significantly affected, and will be supporting the ministry financially.
If a church will not permit women to lead, teach or preach to mixed sex groups of adults, that affects women, men and young people profoundly. But the evidence shows that church members usually only find out after some time, and only by word of mouth or in occasional sermons, that the role of women is being actively managed and limited in their church. This causes anger and the feeling of having been controlled and misled. Loss of trust and respect for clergy leads on to long term damage to the Church’s mission and ministry.
In addition to this general damage, there’s a further consequence. The failure to be open and honest about the position of the church fails to respect the facts that ‘the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all without reference to gender’ (Guiding Principle 1 in the 2014 settlement), and that ‘anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church…has reached a clear decision on [women’s ministry]’ (Principle 2). Churches in which women unexpectedly find that their opportunities for following a call to teach, preach or lead are being limited and directed away from ordination are not following these Principles, the Principles to which all Church of England churches and leaders should be genuinely committed.
There are two imperatives. The first is that clear and honest statements should be readily accessible on church websites, explaining that the leaders of the church subscribe to the doctrine of male headship and/or priesthood. The statement should include an explanation of which opportunities and roles are and are not available to women. The PCC’s letter of request to the bishop should be uploaded, so that the church’s precise theological position is publicly known.
The second is that clergy must not deflect or deter women in their churches from seeking ordination to priesthood or other vocations in the wider Church of England. Instead they should refer women enquiring about teaching, preaching, leadership roles or ordained ministry on to churches/clergy who will fully support their exploration and discernment of vocation.
These two things will go some way to restoring the trust that is essential for mutual flourishing. In the end, there can be no flourishing for women in the Church of England without transparency and trust about the policies and practices that determine their futures.
Dr Felicity Cooke, Vice Chair of WATCH and Ms Lizzie Taylor, WATCH National Committee Member