Six years ago, in 2014, the Church of England finally passed legislation to make it possible for women to be appointed as bishops. The church and the country breathed a sigh of relief that women were at last regarded as equal to men in the church. Except that was not completely true. A majority of members of General Synod were very anxious that no one felt “forced out” of the Church of England by this decision. Provisions were made which allowed anyone uncomfortable with priests and bishops who are women to avoid their ministry. The package of legislation passed in July 2014 therefore makes it very clear that the Church of England continues to be willing to discriminate on the grounds of gender. Yet these provisions, which permit discrimination, are very often spoken of as an example of the breadth of the church, and as a demonstration of how to disagree well.
However, what has become clear to many over recent years, including WATCH, is that women, particularly ordained women, still frequently experience discrimination and behaviour which demeans them. There is a continuing, or even growing, undercurrent of unease, frustration, pain and anger, particularly among ordained women, whenever the Five Guiding Principles or the phrase “Mutual flourishing” are invoked. For women, the “Five Guiding Principles” are frequently experienced more as a wound than as a framework for living together with grace.
“Mutual flourishing means women are expected to be grateful and to keep quiet”, was a sentiment expressed by nearly all the Anglicans involved in research by Dr Gabrielle Thomas in 2018-9 (Church Times 28 June 2019). However, in common with so many examples of discrimination and harassment, these feelings remain suppressed, and women feel silenced, being asked to believe that it is their fault for not being gracious enough, and it is their responsibility to put up with these feelings because this was how they are told the Five Guiding Principles say they “should” behave, or that the decision is “in line with the Five Guiding principles”. What no one with power seems to admit, is that because the Five Guiding Principles are by their origin and nature internally contradictory, there is never one simple decision which is “in line with the Five Guiding Principles”.
WATCH also began to be contacted by parishes where a significant majority of church members wanted to be able to welcome ordained women, but either senior staff in the diocese or small groups on the PCC prevented them, including passing resolutions to achieve this. We even learned of a training institution, considered supportive of women, which used material produced by Forward in Faith as its only resource when introducing teaching and discussion on gender in the Church of England.
In response to this, WATCH has now published a guide to the Five Guiding Principles in the form of a booklet which looks at their original purpose. This was to create a framework for forging legislation to enable women to be appointed a bishop for which a majority of members of General Synod would be willing to vote. The guide reminds us of the “new way of working” that grew out of the conversations in Synod enabled by the use of the Five Guiding Principles. These were based on listening to each other, and building relationships of trust rather than engaging in polarised debate.
In the guide, WATCH considers how this “new way of working” could play a more significant part in the process of dealing with conflicts and decision in parishes and the wider church. WATCH reflects on how taking time to listen, and preferring decisions and ways forward which have the potential to lead to a greater and deeper degree of communion, have much more potential for working together successfully than continuing to create and defend boundaries. WATCH considers how listening and relationships could be prioritised when a parish is considering whether to use the provisions in the House of Bishops’ Declaration (the document issued in 2014 to set out how to protect the views and beliefs of those who do not wish to work with women or receive their ministry). The guide to the Five Guiding Principles is complemented by a second publication discussing in more depth how these principles may successfully be put into practice.
The third important publication, offered alongside the guide and the discussion paper, is a code of behaviour. This addresses the way in which women, particularly, are still treated in ways which demean and degrade them, both in-person and on social media. Much of this behaviour is akin harassment but the fact that it is regarded by too many as acceptable or “banter” is another example of the extent to which the Church of England can be a very difficult and at times, toxic, place for women.
WATCH is offering these resources as a contribution to discovering ways in which the 2014 legislation might lead to better working together, seeking ways of achieving the greatest degree of communion while continuing to identify and challenge discriminatory behaviour. We hope that these resources will help clergy, PCC members and others to ask constructive questions about how the Five Guiding principles and the linked legislation are being used and whether they are leading to a greater degree of communion. We will be interested to hear how useful they are and how they might be improved or made more helpful. Above all, we hope that all three resources will play a part in increasing gender equality in the Church of England.