The following was written by Emma Percy, Chair of WATCH for the Church of England Newspaper.
The news that the next Bishop of London is to be the current Bishop of Crediton, Rt Rev Sarah Mullally DBE has come as a delightful surprise. In a submission to the public consultation on the vacancy in London we said, ‘WATCH would be delighted to see a woman appointed to the See of London. … A female Bishop of London would send out a clear message to women that the Church is changing its past and rather unwelcoming stance to women. It would be a good news story.’ We now find ourselves in this good news story.
This is a historic moment; a woman takes up this very senior position in the Church of England. There will be much rejoicing at this clear signal that, as the first of the Five Guiding principle says, ‘the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender’. Bishop Sarah will sit in the House of Lords and will play her part in many national events as well as leading the large, vibrant diocese of London. In terms of the ministry of women there is much work for Bishop Sarah to do. London is a diocese which up to this point has not had a strong track record on appointing women. Currently there is no woman out of 7 bishops and only two women archdeacons. It is also one of the 4 dioceses that fall far below the average number of women at incumbent level according to the latest statistics. We sincerely hope that her appointment will encourage a culture change.
The legislation that allowed both women as well as men to be appointed as bishops was passed in 2014 yet only two of the 10 diocescan vacanies have been filled by women. WATCH, amongst other organisations, had raised concerns that the system for appointing diocesan bishops was imbalanced. A number of members of the central Crown Nominations Committee, who sit on all diocesan bishop appointment panels, held theological positions that would make it difficult for them to vote for a woman. The central membership of the CNC changed slightly this June and it is a joy to see that their first appointment is Bishop Sarah. This bodes well for the future and we hope that more dioceses will appoint women enabling the House of Bishops to become a more balanced community.
There is evidence from the world of the boardroom that having a minimum of three women on the board starts to make a significant difference to the culture. A Harvard Buisness School report from 2006 says ‘A clear shift occurs when boards have three or more women. At that critical mass, our research shows, women tend to be regarded by other board members not as “female directors” but simply as directors, and they don’t report being isolated or ignored.’ So, it is good that Bishop Sarah now joins Bishops Rachel and Christine. She has been attending the meetings alongside some of the other women suffragan bishops so knows the business but now will be there by right of her office.
Bishop Sarah also brings her experience from the world of nursing and health care. This is to be welcomed as it offers insights from the world of care and service. Pastoral care needs to be at the heart of the Church’s ministry and has been rather undervalued recently as much of the agenda has been shaped by those who have previously worked in the corporate world. It is also a world of work which has a good history of valuing the gifts and skills of women. She has held significant leadership roles, not least as the Governments Chief Nursing Officer for England, giving her experience of complex institutions where leadership is not easily equated with the position of a CEO. We recognise and value this depth of wisdom which she brings to both the diocese of London and the House of Bishops.
The appointment of the first women bishops in 2014 appears to have had a positive impact on the number of women coming forward to ordination, shown in the latest figures released by Ministry Division. We hope that this high profile appointment will continue that trend. We also hope that it will have a much needed impact in terms of mission. Abby Day’s recent book Generation A (OUP, 2017) is a timely reminder of how important lay women have been to maintaining our churches. Sadly, many younger women tend to see the Church of England as an organisation which is not fully positive about women and impacting on their involvement in the life of the church. We hope that the high profile nature of Bishop Sarah’s appointment will signal that the Church of England bears witness to a Christian Faith in which women are valued as equally created in the image of God and equally saved by the passion of Christ; a church which truly welcomes women’s gifts in its life and mission.
We are aware that as many of us rejoice others will be feeling stunned and troubled. The Church of England is committed to the well-being of those who do not feel able to accept the ministry of a woman bishop. We hope that the good example set by Bishop Rachel in Gloucester and Bishop Christine in Newcastle will calm people’s fears. London diocese has managed a system of Episcopal oversight in which parishes have been appropriately supported and we hope and pray that Bishop Sarah will be supported by all her area bishops in continuing to enable parishes and clergy of all views to flourish and work together wherever possible for the good of the kingdom.
Emma Percy Chair of WATCH