Last summer, an article in “Outlook” (the journal published annually by WATCH for members and others) challenged churches which had requested extended episcopal oversight, to make this clear on their websites and other publicity. The article, written by Lizzie Taylor, focused particularly on churches from the conservative evangelical group, who had requested oversight from the Bishop of Maidstone because their interpretation of various bible passages leads them to believe that women should not be given leadership or teaching roles in the church, and that men are always “the head” of the woman.
At the centre of the article was the concern that
“…PCCs have often been asked to agree this in order to protect the vicar’s theological conviction on male headship, when this conviction is not shared by the majority of the congregation. Crucially, the House of Bishops’ Declaration that formed part of the 2014 Settlement, focuses on the parish’s theological conviction, not that of its clergy. An unfortunate consequence is that male headship ministry may now be being imposed on these parishes when this is not what the congregations wish to receive. The churches concerned are, generally, not open on their websites about their male headship ministry decision and activities. This is important when one considers that at present there is no firm requirement to consult the parish to review the PCC’s decision on male headship over the coming years. So, as the congregation changes, new joiners might never be aware of the PCC’s original request.”
The article then went on to list some of the possible consequences of this lack of openness about the theological conviction of the PCC.
“Here are examples of the profound ways in which parishes may be affected by this exclusion of women from leadership and ministry:
- Reduced or no opportunities for women to serve in leadership roles that develop and build personal skills and confidence.
- Reduced or no opportunities to develop gifts of preaching and teaching.
- Missed and denied years when individuals‘ vocations to the priesthood could have been identified and furthered.
- A very significant number of lost years of their ministry to the Church of England, the nation and world beyond.
- Young people not able to see the leadership of women, and just experiencing a male-only model of leadership, with all the subliminal consequences of this for young people of both sexes.
- Confirmands confirmed by a male headship bishop, sometimes without they or their families being informed as to why this bishop, rather than one of their diocese’s bishops, has been invited to minister to them in this formative way.”
Shortly before Christmas, this article was given as one reason why, in his Advent/Christmas Newsletter for churches who had requested his oversight, the Bishop of Maidstone encouraged churches to be open, suggesting that parishes under his care should state on their websites that their PCC had “sent in a letter of request for arrangements to be made under the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the ministry of Bishops and Priests”.
He said “It is, of course, entirely understandable that churches want to keep the focus on the gospel and [do not] want to elevate what they see as a secondary issue into a primary position,” he wrote. “Also understandable is the desire to invite people to discover God’s word for themselves, before they have to address an issue that is so counter-cultural. However, the criticism that we are not being altogether transparent must be heard.” (quoted in ‘Bishop Thomas Urges Conservative Evangelical Churches to be ‘Transparent’ on Male Headship’, Church Times article by Madeleine Davies, 25 Jan 2019; see also www.bishopofmaidstone.org).
Most people may think that this form of words is not very much more transparent than saying nothing. The Bishop of Maidstone is further reported as explaining why churches often do not choose to state their ‘complementarian’ beliefs on their websites:
“The danger of saying too much is that it starts to give the wrong impression of what church is about,” Bishop Thomas said in response. “If you are trying to attract non-Christians, then there is a good chance they won’t have had not only awareness of the debate, but knowledge of biblical teaching, or any knowledge of why they should be concerned about biblical teaching, so they will just react immediately against something they don’t understand. . . It’s something that has to be dealt with transparently, but also very carefully…. “I agree there’s no point in putting things down that do not mean anything, but equally there is no point in saying things that won’t be understood until they are explained.”
Similarly the vicar of Vicar of Christ Church, Cambridge, the Revd Stephen Midgley, was reported as having said:
“What we are after is clarity, because you want to communicate something that is accurate and helpful and enables people to understand. I think my puzzle is how we do that in a soundbite.” It needed to be “brief enough but without being simplistic…… I have had similar conversations (about the church leader’s male headship views and practice) with people here. . . At the moment, it comes up when it comes up — we don’t go out of our way to explain ourselves on that issue at a formal meeting, but then again lots of things don’t come up, or come up in due course. But I am sympathetic — I can see the argument. It’s one of many things where the Church is counter-cultural.”.
So the question is whether putting a form of words on a website that will only be understood or seen as significant by a very small number of people is genuinely transparent. We are living in a world where nearly everyone (including a lot of regular worshippers in Church of England congregations) thinks that women are now fully accepted in the Church of England as preachers, priests and bishops, and are often shocked to discover that there are still places where this is not the case as a result of conscious decisions and use of the 2014 legislation.
A similar question about transparency could be asked of the other churches which also request extended oversight, but this time because of their particular interpretation of being Anglo-Catholic. Most of those churches who have websites include something along the lines of “under the pastoral care of the Bishop of xxxxxxx (a PEV), having passed a resolution under the House of Bishops’ Declaration”. They often give links to their Provincial Episcopal Visitor, and to Forward in Faith or the Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda websites. But the question remains: is this genuine transparency when only those who know enough about the workings and language of the Church of England, have any idea what these resolutions are about, i.e. significance of sharing episcopal oversight with the bishop of, for example, Ebbsfleet, Richborough or Beverley. The majority of people in our churches, and certainly in our wider communities, who use church websites for information about their local church, have very little idea that there are congregations who still do not accept women as bishops or priests; and which quite often, don’t even accept as bishop a man who has ordained a woman.
This lack of genuine transparency was highlighted in a subsequent letter to the Church Times on February 15th 2019, by General Synod member April Alexander. She wrote:
“Maybe Bishop Thomas has the advantage over the rest of us and has seen research suggesting that congregations and parishioners have read the House of Bishops’ Declaration and, more than that, understood it (studiedly vague as it is on these points).
The Bishop, I am sure, will know that the Guidance on the Declaration says: “It is good practice . . . for the PCC to enable members of the wider church community to submit views before any meeting at which a resolution is to be considered.” May I suggest that the wording of such a communication to “the wider church community” might read: “The leaders of this church currently subscribe to the doctrine of male headship. The PCC is considering sending a Letter of Request to the Diocese for the oversight exclusively of male bishops and the ministry exclusively of male priests and seeks the views of the congregation and the wider parish on such a move” (suitably amended to reflect the actual position in the parish in question).
Thereafter, the declaration on the parish website might be: “The leaders of this church currently subscribe to the doctrine of male headship. At the request of the PCC, our Diocesan Bishop has granted the parish oversight exclusively of male bishops and has acceded to the appointment exclusively of male ordained priests and male church leaders.” (again, suitably adapted).”
WATCH hopes that churches who have petitioned for extended oversight will have the courage of their convictions and begin to be fully transparent about the practice of their churches, which exclude women from ordained ministry and church leadership.
‘Lay perspective…’ article by Lizzie Taylor, Outlook, Summer 2018
News Article ‘Bishop Thomas Urges Conservative Evangelical Churches to be ‘Transparent’ on Male Headship’, by Madeleine Davies, Church Times, Jan 25 2019
Letter ‘Suggested forms of words for Resolution parishes’, from April Alexander, Church Times, 15 Feb 2019