This November marks the 25th anniversary of General Synod passing the legislation that enabled women to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. As a member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) I joined many others standing on the steps of Church House all day on 11th November 1992. We were so nervous, unsure if the vote would be passed and unclear how we would cope if it was not. In the end, thank God, we rejoiced.
This last month I found myself talking to people from the MOW group in Sydney. Now the Anglican Church in Australia has many wonderful women priests and a handful of women bishops. The Rt Rev Kay Goldsworthy has just become Archbishop of Perth. However, the way that the church is organised in Australia means that women are not ordained as priests and bishops throughout Australia. The diocese of Sydney holds to a strong complementarian doctrine of gender roles and this means that women cannot be ordained as priest. In fact, although women can be ordained deacon, they are unlikely to be licensed to preach and certainly not allowed into a church leadership position. Thus Sydney still has a MOW group.
The teaching of Sydney diocese is premised on a supposedly ‘natural’ ordering of men and women evident in their reading of Genesis and the Pastoral Epistles. Women are to submit to their husbands but to see this as a glorious God given role akin to Christ’s submission to the Father. This leads to a rather strange understanding of the Trinity, certainly not traditional, with a permanent submission of the 2nd person that many theologians would term heretical. It also leads to a very narrow understanding of what women can do and be within the Church. It seems strange that women are Christ like in their submission but cannot represent Christ in teaching, leading and administering the sacraments.
We see a similar narrow view of humanity in the recent Nashville Statement. Here a fixed reading of Genesis in terms of gender is used both to maintain rigid gender roles and also to condemn homosexuality and transgender. The statements acknowledge that some individuals are born without clear physical gender identity but assume that they will find and live within an assigned binary, presumably whichever the doctors or parents decide. This statement has no comprehension of diversity, of the complex realities of human beings. There is little grace and plenty of sharp boundaries to define those in and those outside their vision of the church.
Meanwhile, I am preparing for a new term of students. These young people in their late teens and early twenties have, for the most part, very open views on gender and sexuality. They are far less certain about the neatness of gender binaries; understanding that what makes someone a woman or a man is a very complex mix of biology, social conditioning and mental self-perception. They value love and commitment but are far less concerned about whether people fall in love with people of a different gender or the same. They have strong views about accepting people as they are, supporting people who are exploring their identity and fighting discrimination wherever it surfaces.
Sadly, many of these young people see the church as an institution which continues to discriminate against women and against LGBTQ people. The Rector of one of the big student churches here in Oxford has signed the Nashville Statement and it is a church in which women are not in evidence as Preachers. If we are serious as a church about reaching out with the good news of Jesus to younger people we need to understand their deep belief in justice and hospitality, both values that Jesus practiced and preached.
WATCH is 21 this year. It was founded because it was clear that though we no longer needed a Movement for the Ordination of women we did need an organisation which challenges the Church about gender justice. We still have a long way to go to be a Church in which the divine image in women is seen to be as rich and relevant as the divine image in men; a church in which the gender of a priest or bishop is unremarkable. A church in which lay people across the board have opportunities to hear the word of God preached in a woman’s voice and receive the sacraments from a woman’s hands.
The Church still needs to learn how to celebrate and explore the Genesis statement that all humanity, male and female is made in the image of God. There is much work to be done for us to understand what it means that ‘in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ Where the church struggles with gender, so it also struggles with sexuality; rigid gender views about the nature of men and women go hand in hand with condemnation of those who are not heterosexual.
The members of Sydney MOW ask us to pray for them. We rejoice that we do have women as priests and bishops in the Church of England so no longer need an MOW, but we know that we too need to continue to pray and work for a church that really embraces the diversity of humanity. WATCH is still a necessary voice in our church so we thank you for your ongoing support. At the AGM on 18th November we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the vote, looking back with thanks and forward with commitment and hope.