Recently Dr Gabrielle Thomas published an article in the journal “Ecclesiology” in which she tells how a majority of ordained (Anglican) women in a recent research project described the concept of Mutual Flourishing as an open wound in the church of England. She suggests a possible theological model for moving beyond this hurt . The main findings and arguments of her article are set out below.
Five years ago, on November 17th 2014, it finally became legal for women to be appointed as bishops in the Church of England. Now, five diocesan bishops are women and, since the consecration of the new bishops of Dover and Reading a few days ago, nineteen suffragan bishops. At last, most people think, the Church of England has become a place where women are no longer discriminated against and the church can be blessed by their ministry. At the same time, those few people who do not wish to receive the ministry of ordained women, whether as priests or bishops, are still able to find a place in the Church of England because the declaration that accompanied the legislation to allow women to be bishops made provisions for this group, and set the aspiration of “mutual flourishing” for all. However, a few months ago, an article was published in the journal Ecclesiology , and a shorter version of it in the Church Times, which challenged this understanding. The author of the article, Dr Gabby Thomas, found herself describing “mutual flourishing” as an open wound in the church.
This is all the more powerful because in the research which produced this finding, she was not setting out to ask about mutual flourishing, the Five Guiding Principles or anything related to these. Her research was to explore the experience of women from a variety of different denominations, ages and experiences, using the method of “receptive Ecumenism”, meeting in groups in which they were encouraged to share the wounds and gifts they experienced in their own church. All the women had positive things to contribute; all the women acknowledged that their churches had similar difficulties in accepting women, but Thomas discovered that all but three of the twenty-two Anglican women named “Mutual Flourishing” as being an active, and almost festering, wound in the church. She records some of the comments and conversations:
Two women reported receiving “hate mail”, and another said: “I’d given out my ember cards at college . . . and the next day I found two of them torn into little pieces and put back into my pigeon hole.’ 1
Remarks such as these came thick and fast: “Mutual flourishing means women are expected to be grateful and to keep quiet”; “It is not at all clear what is actually meant by mutual flourishing, and precisely what kind of theology underpins it.” 2
Another woman said: I’m all for mutual flourishing, but is it really that? Or, is it simply the flourishing of those I am supposed to seek who do not recognise me as a priest? I don’t like sounding cynical, but fellow priests have sent me hate mail. And we are not talking about things which happened twenty years ago; this has happened very recently. It seems to me that the flourishing is one-sided.’ 3
In a further group, one woman spoke about the wound of the ‘Five Guiding Principles’ as they are lived out in the diocese within which she ministers:
‘If you asked any women [clergy] in our diocese what they think mutual flourishing is all about, they’d tell you – if they dared, that is – that it means women are expected to be grateful and to keep quiet. It feels like it was an effective way to silence us, and I’m not sure flourishing means silence … Have you noticed that in the ‘Five Guiding Principles’, there’s an assumption that women who are ordained are automatically flourishing?’ 4
Thomas records that several women spoke of their sadness about the ‘gap’ which often exists between those who hold differing views on ordination of women to the priesthood.
They suggested that it is unhelpful to hold separate Chrism Eucharists and ordination services for those who do not accept the ordained ministry of women. As well as this, those who reject women priests rarely attend deanery chapter meetings.
Describing this situation, one woman said, ‘we are all in our little separate groups, and it’s far too easy to avoid one another’.
In other words, ‘mutual flourishing’ functions in practice as a euphemism for ‘independent flourishing’. 5
She concludes these examples saying:
‘While women are permitted to orders of bishop, priest and deacon, the focus groups have brought to light how painful it can be when women are not recognised as ‘real priests’ and how it can lead to (as one woman put it) ‘bullying’.’6
This is powerful testimony, more powerful because it was not asked about explicitly, to the continuing feeling among women that mutual flourishing expects graciousness from women all the time, even when their identity as a priest and thus a person, is being questioned. Women rarely express this, and it only is in contexts where they feel safe from judgement and supported by others, such as these focus groups, that these feelings that mutual flourishing is not something that they have experienced over the past five years are articulated. This is in contrast to a remark made by a Methodist minister in one of the focus groups:
‘Methodism is a safe place for women to be women.’
The implication of this comment, made in the context of these ecumenical groups of women, is that not all places in churches do feel safe for women to be who they are, and currently the Church of England is not a place where women always feel safe to be women.
However, in both the article published in Ecclesiology, and the shorter one in the Church Times, Thomas takes up the challenge of looking for a way of considering the concept of mutual flourishing theologically. She notes that the FAOC study guide suggests taking inspiration from Ephesians 4:13 to suggest that flourishing entails:
‘growing up to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’. Much like receptive ecumenism, flourishing ‘is likely to mean change and challenge, repentance and deepening conversion’.7
However, her response to this is to ask how this can happen when those with opposing views rarely share one another’s spaces, is not clear. Nor is it evident what repentance looks like in this instance.8
Instead, Thomas looks at one of the influential theologians of the Western church, Thomas Aquinas. A rather unexpected source of inspiration in this context, one might think, as Aquinas has been used in the past to justify opposition to the ordination of women, (despite his only considering this question once in his writings.) The question she is seeking to explore is this:
‘Is there a way of thinking about the question theologically which could contribute to the healing of this particular wound’?
I ask this, not expecting to ‘cure all souls’, but rather to deepen the conversation with respect to how, in the Church of England, we might seek one another’s flourishing, in a context in which many people are hurt, hold radically diverse opinions, and are in asymmetrical relations with one another.9
The aspect of Aquinas’ writing which Thomas engages with in a search for a way forward is his theology of human flourishing as friendship with God in light of God’s grace. Friendship can apply to both men and women
In Aquinas’ thought, human flourishing could be summed up as “friendship with God”; it is theocentric and cosmically oriented. He argues that the incarnation provides a way for humans to respond freely to God as God’s friends. It renders possible the equality and commonality required for humans to be friends with God, and, through God, friends with one another. Aquinas de-sentimentalises friendship by locating it in the broader economy of God’s grace, which, in turn, paves a way for the possibility of being friends with those who hold differing beliefs. …
First, ‘mutual flourishing’ is friendship with God. It does not imply that everyone needs to have the same opinion on ordaining women priests. Mutuality is located first in our shared friendship with God, and only through God is friendship possible with one another. Thomas’s theology of friendship creates a space in which to explore how we might discuss honestly the additional effect of asymmetrical relations when thinking about mutual flourishing. 10
But, as Thomas points out, there needs to be a space for those with very different view points and feelings, to explore God’s gift of friendship.
This calls into question current practices in the Church of England which create a ‘buffer’ for those with differing beliefs by providing separate ordination services, separate Chrism Eucharists, the public naming of priests who preside at the Eucharist, and so on. Through many different practices and structures those in the church are buffering themselves and choosing to disengage with one another. 11
Although Thomas does not explore the background to the concept of mutual flourishing, It is ironic, or even tragic, to hear how current practices, in the Church of England, tacitly supported and in some cases encouraged by the House of Bishops and senior diocesan staff, have led to a situation which is often entirely contrary to the hopes of those who voted for the 2014 legislation which incorporates these principles and the aim of “mutual flourishing”. The ways in which those who could not accept the ministry of ordained women, (and for some, anyone else in the rest of the Church of England who accepts ordained women), were described hopefully as the legislation was developed and debated in ways much more like the friendship and grace of Aquinas than the “buffering” which sets up barriers.
Here are some of the aspirations expressed in the Final Approval debate in 2014:
.’..law cannot really do anything about trust, the word that we have used so often in this debate; nor can it actually do much about flourishing, the word that has come in more recently in this debate. What it can do is indicate intention. What it can do is make a space, but actually trust and flourishing are down to us.’
‘The key of relatedness and trust of friendship, fellowship and flourishing. We have not been able to guarantee those things by legislation. That is the change that we have made and, therefore, we are asked to trust one another. I know that is difficult sometimes, but that is what we are being asked to do.’
Bishop of Rochester
Thomas recognises that the differences within the Church of England over the ordination of women, even though the dissenting view is only held by a small proportion of members of the church, run deeper than just different views and approaches. However, she still considers that Aquinas’ model of friendship as a way of relating to others through our common faith and belief in God is one which holds possibilities.
She end with this hope and this challenge:
‘Through many different practices and structures those in the church are buffering themselves and choosing to disengage with one another. Whilst, obviously, there are exceptions to this, the structures more often support a buffered stance rather than a porous stance. If we are to take Aquinas’ model of friendship, movement towards and engagement with one another is necessary for any notion of mutual flourishing.
This necessitates a choice……. We will need to choose to cross boundaries and to risk an ‘unbuffered’ stance by moving into one another’s spaces. Whilst, for reasons already stated, it would be difficult to begin by sharing the Eucharist, nevertheless it would be possible to come together for daily offices to pray with another. Since, as Aquinas has identified, friendship is not simply possible by human effort but needs Divine help, it is imperative that we learn to pray with one another and share one another’s sacred spaces.’ 12
Five years on from the passing of the legislation, it is becoming much more normal to think of a bishop as being a woman. However, the other hope of those who worked to prepare this legislation: that women, and those who value a priesthood that includes both genders will be able to find ways of engaging deeply and respectfully with those who do not believe they can exist, is still a long way from being realised.
Dr Gabrielle Thomas is Lecturer in Early Christian and Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School, and is an ordained priest in the Church of England. Prior to moving to the U.S., she worked as a postdoctoral research associate at Durham University, U.K. and served as a Minor Canon in Durham Cathedral.
WATCH would like to thank her for allowing this article reporting on her recent research to be published on their website.
The two articles by Dr Gabrielle Thomas, on which this article is based are:
“The wound of mutual flourishing Church Times, 28 June 2019
‘Mutual Flourishing’ in the Church of England: Learning from St Thomas Aquinas’ Ecclesiology 15 (2019) 302-321 (published September 2019)
Other articles by Dr Thomas reporting on the experiences the Receptive Ecumenism research have been published in the Methodist Recorder: 8 March 2019, The Gift of Methodist Women and The Tablet 16 May 2019
- Ecclesiology 15 (2019) p309;
- Church times 22 June 2019
- Ecclesiology 15 (2019) p309
- ibid p309-10
- ibid p310
- ibid p309
- Faith and Order Commission: the Five Guiding Principles – A Resource for Study p30
- Ecclesiology 15 p 310-11
- 9.ibid p311
- ibid p318
- ibid p319
- 12 ibid p 320