It may be thirty years since the first women were ordained deacons in the Church of England and a woman is now Bishop of London; but if we ask how far women have become an accepted and normal part of the ministry of the Church of England, and how well they are encouraged and prepared to take on a range of roles within the church, the answer is still “it depends on where you are”.
In general most people are not very aware of how different one diocese can be from another. Those who are in a diocese where they naturally meet ordained women in senior roles and where women make up about a third of the clergy at diocesan gatherings, are in a context with a very different “normal” from a diocese where ordained women are almost invisible and unheard, because none of the senior clergy are women and an ordained woman might be on her own in some deaneries and at other local events.
This is where statistics can play a part. The Furlong Tables, first produced in 2000 and then revised in 2005 and 2010, were the first attempt to find an objective way of comparing the position of women in different dioceses. In 2000, the diocese with the best record was Southwark, and at the bottom of the table was Chichester, with Blackburn just above it.
The last Furlong table was published in 2010, because there were several years when no statistics on ministry were published centrally. From 2015, figures were being published once again, and in more detail, so for the last three years WATCH has compared the proportions of women in stipendiary parish ministry in each diocese. The differences between dioceses remain high. Across all the dioceses of the Church of England, the proportion of women of incumbent status is 25%, but when we can see that the proportion of stipendiary women clergy in a diocese ranges from 12% to 41%, we realise how different the experience of both clergy and laity in different diocese can be. The dioceses with the lowest proportion of women in stipendiary parish ministry are Chichester (12%) , Blackburn(14%) , London (14%) and Winchester, Carlisle, Exeter and Rochester all with 20% or lower. At the other end of the scale are Ely (41%), Liverpool (35%). Hereford (33%) and Gloucester, Peterborough, Salisbury, Durham and Manchester with 30% - 32%. It is also worth noting that in the Channel Islands, only 12% of stipendiary clergy are women and in the diocese of Europe the figure is even lower: 9%.
The same diocesan statistics also give the numbers of men and women who are archdeacons, and bishops in each diocese. A resignation or new appointment can change the balance significantly for this group, but in 2017, when the most recent figures were collected, there were still 12 dioceses out of 42 with no women amongst Archdeacons and bishops. The numbers change slightly all the time, but even if we include cathedral Deans (as the Dean is the senior priest of the diocese) it is still the case that in nearly a quarter of dioceses there are no senior women to be role models for others, and, by their presence, begin to change the culture. Some diocesan bishops are aware of this and include women in making strategic decisions, but this is once again a “post code lottery”
However, an even greater imbalance is hidden in what we do not see and what is not published, and that is the significant proportion of clergy who are also women, who are maintaining the ministry in parishes across the country but are not paid, have no pension rights and are not counted centrally so we don’t know how many there are. No distinction is made in the tables between those who are working in parishes more than half time, including those who are house of duty, and those who have well paid weekday jobs and take some services at weekend, and all other ways of being an SSM in between. There are only 7 dioceses out of the 42 where women SSMs do not outnumber male SSMs, and one of these dioceses is London, with very few women in stipendiary roles either.
This difference between the proportion of ordained women who are in stipendiary roles, and those who are SSM, is compounded by the age of ordinands. Despite the recent press releases from the church of England, celebrating the increase in women ordinands, the majority of women ordinands are 45 or older, and at this age, an ordinand is much more likely to be SSM. More work is needed to find out why this disparity continues, though it was noticeable that the numbers of young women being ordained fell after the collapse of legislation to enable women to become bishops. The majority of those appointed to senior roles come from the stipendiary clergy, so despite the variety of valuable experiences that women bring to ordained ministry, they are less likely to be appointed to senior roles, either within a diocese, or as Area Deans and Team Rectors. However, it is encouraging, and worth noting, that three of the four diocesan bishops who are women did not follow what has been a conventional route to episcopacy: university, residential theological college, and then stipendiary curacy and ministry. The Bishops of Newcastle and London both trained on part time courses, and both of them, and also the Bishop of Gloucester, had professional careers before ordination.
If we consider the figures we are not given, then another huge omission is the proportion of BAME clergy. The reason given for this omission is that the numbers of this group are so small that statistics can’t be used comparatively. However, saying that because we can’t compare the proportions of this group meaningfully means we don't need to record the numbers, or ask question about the experience of being both a woman and BAME, is not valid.
The figures, and the patterns that they highlight, will not in themselves bring about change. However, if we are concerned about gender justice in the Church of England , we need such numbers in order to be able to audit where we are now, and show what needs to be done in order to get closer to a church where women are genuinely playing an equal role. It is also vital that we learn to read the tables carefully, to become aware of which groups of people are not even included.
The data used in this article is taken from tables compiled by Church of England Research and Statistics, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3AZ
The tables can be found by clicking HERE
Our thanks to the Team at church House for compiling these tables and publishing them.
WATCH has produced reports on these figures for the past 3 years and they can be found on the WATCH website: