A response to the use of ‘minority’ in Sir Philip Mawer’s review from WATCH member, Rachel Neaum

On the 15th September, Sir Philip Mawer’s report into the nomination to the See of Sheffield was published. Mawer refers to those opposed to the ordination of women as the ‘minority’, which is unsurprising given that the fifth of the Guiding Principles also does so:

Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.[1]

Referring to those who are opposed to the ordination of women as the minority not only suggests that they are numerically few. It also invokes the language of minority rights. For example, Mawer says the ‘key issue for those in the minority was whether their position would continue to be recognised and honoured in the Church.’[2] He also highlights that ‘pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority’ needs to be made.[3] But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a minority group. The opponents of women’s ordination are now numerically few but they are not – in the sense that it is used to protect civil or collective rights – a minority. To be a minority in this sense has nothing to do with the number of people in a group. It is about the locus of power and privilege.

In every other section of our society women are considered a minority group because, both historically and currently, they do not have the same opportunities as men and do not have an equal share of the power and privileges afforded to them.[4] Although the Right Revd Philip North belongs to a small vestige of people opposed to the ordination of women, he still belongs to the hegemonic majority. That is to say, he belongs to a group of people who for two millennia have held the dominant viewpoint and had the power to enforce it. It is a viewpoint that still has repercussions for women and their vocations today.

In his report, Mawer writes that ‘[a]s long ago as 1975 the General Synod passed a motion saying that it could see no fundamental objections to such a development [of women’s ordination].’[5] In fact, a failure to find any fundamental objections goes much further back. A theological argument against women’s ordination in a draft paper at the 1930 Lambeth Conference was removed because it was so bad that, as one liberal bishop pointed out, if ‘we keep this theological argument it will be riddled with ridicule.’[6] In 1932 the Archbishops of Canterbury and York set up a commission to consider the issue of the ordination of women again. When the report was published in 1935 they still did not have a coherent theological argument against women’s ordination. Still, they did not feel comfortable with women priests. So they argued instead that there was a ‘consensus of tradition and opinion’ against the idea. They could claim, as support for their position, that ‘the general mind of the Church is still in accord with the continuous tradition of a male priesthood.’[7] They were right. Most of the people in positions of authority and power within the church found the idea of women presiding at the altar offensive. As a result, they did not need a theological argument. They were the dominant group: they could simply refuse to change.

Not only are women a minority group in terms of their status within the Church they are also still the numerical minority. IN 2015, 27% of stipendiary clergy were women and that dropped to 19% for senior roles.[8] That these women are now described as the ‘majority’ by Mawer is as ridiculous as it is misleading. Mawer tells us that in the Diocese of Sheffield only 22% of stipendiary clergy are women.[9] Very soon afterwards he says that ‘neither those in the minority nor those in the majority (notably ordained women themselves) felt confidently affirmed in their ministry’ within the Diocese.[10] It is a fundamental misunderstanding of minority politics and the outworking of history and hegemony to claim that those ordained women are now a part of the majority just because the Church has finally given them a level of support that does not even include all its members fully recognising their sacramental ministry.

This makes the argument that ‘10 to one [women bishops to men bishops who oppose their ordination] is a pretty good result for those whose desire is to keep score against their opponents’[11], particularly inappropriate. This was made by the Revd Arun Arora, then Director of Communications for the Church of England, and is questioned by Mawer when he points out that there are now only 11 women in a College of Bishops with 117 members.[12] Arora’s point, once again, paints women as the majority when they are both numerically and hegemonically a minority within Church leadership. It also makes them seem petty for expecting the Church to try to redress two thousand years of wrong while it offers the kind of support usually reserved for the oppressed to the very people who kept them from positions of leadership for so long.

Mawer recommends that more is done on the theology underlying the Settlement and that North’s nomination has exposed fundamental challenges to the Guiding Principles. I suggest that there are more than theological flaws in the Guiding Principles. There is a confusion about language that has ended up making those opposed to women’s ordination a minority in a way that co-opts the language of minority rights. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how minority rights and power relations work and the Church will not be able to flourish if it protects those who have benefitted from two millennia of tradition and opinion at the expense of those who have had their vocation to the episcopate recognised for less than five years.


Rachel Neaum

with thanks to the Revd Rachel Greene for conversations that developed these ideas


[1] https://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/general-synod/about-general-synod/house-of-bishops/declaration-on-the-ministry-of-bishops-and-priests.aspx

[2] Sir Philip Mawer, Review of Nomination to the See of Sheffield and Related Concerns, p. 7.

[3] Mawer, p. 9.

[4] See the Government Equalities Office for one example of work being done to protect against the discrimination of women in English society.

[5] Mawer, p. 7.

[6] Timothy Willem Jones, ‘Unduly conscious of her sex’: priesthood, female bodies, and sacred space in the Church of England, Women’s History Review, 2012, Volume 21, Issue 4, p. 644.

[7] The Ministry of Women: Report of the Archbishops’ Commission, Church Assembly Publications Board, 1935.

[8] Mawer uses these figures within his report.

[9] Mawer, p. 15.

[10] Mawer, p. 11.

[11] http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/opinion/arun-aurora-why-the-coe-must-be-a-broad-church-when-it-comes-to-new-bishop-of-sheffield-1-8420447

[12] Mawer, p. 67.