A recent article in the Sunday Times (28 April 2019) was headlined: ‘500 churches in C of E still ban female priests’. The report highlighted the number of parishes revealed to have sent a Letter of Request (‘Resolution parishes’) under the 2014 Settlement, asking to receive the episcopal ministry of the Bishops of Beverley, Ebbsfleet, Maidstone and Richborough. The purpose of the review was to consider episcopal work load and this led to what may be the first formal quantifying of the number of conservative evangelical parishes which seek alternative episcopal ministry on the grounds of theological conviction for male headship. This is interesting in itself. Early in the report a table of ‘Resolution parishes’ shows a total of 352 cared for by the four bishops. The Bishop of Maidstone sent a further submission to the members of the Commission in February 2019 giving more up to date figures for Maidstone: 74 parishes where the Bishop ‘had been officially asked to provide extended episcopal ministry, and a further 65 Resolution parishes where he also is “invited to be involved as issues arise”.’ (p. 2)
The article refers to the ‘Five Guiding Principles’, which were drawn up by the House of Bishops in 2014 to help the Church to navigate through a tangled maze of conflicting opinion about the legislation for the consecration of women as bishops. In the five years since then those who opposed the legislation, and cannot subscribe to the fact 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) have devoted much thought and energy to promoting their theology, and to representing themselves as an oppressed minority. If this sounds a little unfair let’s look at the words of Lee Gatiss, director of The Church Society, quoted in the article and referring to a motion (subsequently lost) in the Church in Wales Governing Body that those who refuse the sacramental ministry of women should no longer be ordained.This was described by Gatiss as ‘extremist’, and an attempt to impose a ‘novel cultural agenda on everyone else’. Elsewhere Gatiss has talked, with approval, about the position of the conservative evangelical churches being ‘counter-cultural’.
Gatiss is further quoted as saying that ‘Though we have lots of women bishops now, there isn’t a single conservative evangelical diocesan bishop and no ordinary suffragans who act in accordance with the traditional view.’ Let’s unpick that a bit. ‘Lots of women bishops’ actually translates as four diocesan bishops out of a total of 44, and 12 suffragans out of a total of 69 sees (2018 figures). Meanwhile there are four bishops appointed exclusively to minister to Resolution parishes. Most of these parishes are in dioceses where there is a male bishop, which means that they do not actually require the oversight of another male bishop. Parishes are encouraged to send the current (male) diocesan bishop Letters of Request in anticipation that at some time in the future a woman may become the diocesan bishop.
We have to ask ourselves some difficult questions here, difficult because the answers are not those that conservative evangelical leaders will want to hear. What, for example, does the ‘mutual flourishing’ referred to in the five Guiding Principles actually mean? Does it mean living the spiritual life that those holding this theological conviction want, or does it mean (as it seems to) their advancement in a church where their views are in the minority? Does it mean the exercise of power? Does it mean licence not just to deny the priesthood of women, but active discouragement of ordained women, and those seeking both priestly and lay leadership in the church?
The Chair of WATCH, Rev Dr Emma Percy, rightly points out that no attempts are being made in the Church of England to change the legislation agreed in 2014. What is needed, and this is probably even more difficult to achieve, is a change of culture in the Church. Perhaps a good analogy for us in the Church is the tension in secular life between the right to freedom of expression, which is limited to preserve the rights of others. So for example incitement to hatred on the basis of any personal characteristic restricts the right to freedom of expression. Achieving this sort of balance is a constant struggle, but the principle clearly places a limit on the extent of freedom of speech. However deeply held a conviction, there is no absolute right to carry it through to the utmost, if in so doing it obstructs the rights of others. The development of a culture where this is clearly understood and accepted means acceptance of certain standards of speech and behaviour. This is the key to cultural change in any organisation or society, and why we have both law and regulation to remind us of boundaries we may not cross. It is no different for the Church.
The legislation of the Church of England means that the church has reached a settled position on the rights of women to be ordained, and to be consecrated as bishop, and, crucially, ‘holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience’ (Guiding Principle 1). It cannot be in accordance with a principle of ‘due respect’ to label the acceptance of the ordination of women as a ‘novel cultural agenda’.
Review of the Sees of Beverley, Ebbsfleet, Maidstone and Richborough’, The Dioceses Commission, February 2019.
The Archdeacon of Llandaff, who proposed the motion, has explained that her intention was to seek for traditionalists who sought to enter the priesthood to reconcile themselves to the existence of women in all orders in Wales.
The announcement of the appointment of three further suffragans was made in May 201G.