For over nine years, WATCH has observed the outworking of the 2014 House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests (the Declaration), and highlighted concerns about its operation and the continuing discrimination and sexism that women experience in the Church.
We have repeatedly called for transparency from churches that limit women’s ministry – so that websites and communications are clear about their policies and practices – and nothing effectual has been done to resolve this either by the churches themselves or by bishops in requesting this. It is commonplace for people to attend churches that limit women’s ministry for many years and know nothing about this and then, when they find out, to feel deceived and lose trust in both local clergy and the wider Church.
We have been surprised and disappointed by the lack of compliance with the terms of the Declaration and other areas of discrimination and sexism that seem to be legitimised by the arrangements. Here are some examples:
- Although PCCs are required under the Declaration to reflect the theological convictions of the parish regarding women’s ministry, we have seen PCCs pass Resolutions with minimal consultation and where the majority view – in favour of women’s full ministry – has sometimes been overridden. Increasingly, we are hearing about parishes where PCCs are being asked to pass Resolutions limiting women’s ministry for reasons other than a theological conviction on whether women should be priests or church leaders – but for ‘unity’ or to safeguard the church from its style of worship being changed.
- We have asked bishops to encourage parishes that have Resolutions to review these regularly, but this is generally not happening.
- We have brought to the attention of bishops ‘Guidance’ about passing Resolutions that has been published by third parties, and commended for use by churches, which is misapplying the Declaration – but the Church has not commented on or corrected this ‘Guidance.’
- We have come across churches who do not have Resolutions, and do not want to limit women’s ministry in any way, being pressured by some patrons and bishops to accept clergy who limit women’s roles.
- We have noted an ongoing gender imbalance in clergy appointments, which is pronounced in dioceses where the bishops historically and currently do not fully affirm women’s priestly ministry. We have noted that female priests are more likely to find posts in rural areas and non-stipendiary posts and find it much harder to be appointed in larger urban parishes.
- We have observed the process for appointing new diocesan bishops and seen how it is skewed to the advantage of men over women. As a result, only two in the last eleven appointments have been women.
- We continue to hear from women whose vocations have been slow-tracked or stymied because of a lack of the requirement to cross-refer the priestly vocations of women in Resolution parishes to clergy in other churches, who will support their discernment.
- We have submitted a referral of concern to the Independent Reviewer of the 2014 House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, regarding the appointment this year of the most recent Bishop of Blackburn, who is the first Diocesan Bishop to be appointed since 2014 who does not ordain women. The appointment was made without the implementation of important recommendations by the Independent Reviewer in 2017. Nor was appropriate national or local consultation made on the appointment.
- We have noted the ongoing over-representation of bishops who do not fully affirm women’s ministry (about 9%), in relation to the number of parishes seeking such oversight (about 4%.)
- We have raised questions and concerns in General Synod that have been deflected and ignored.
- Not only is the Declaration being misapplied, but its terms are being ignored in some quarters: we are now hearing about the practice of ‘soft complementarianism’ – the practice of quietly limiting women’s ministries in churches that are sympathetic to the theology of male headship but have not passed Resolutions. And sadly there are many cases of women, both ordained and lay, being bullied and belittled by those who do not fully respect their ministries.
- Perhaps, most disconcerting of all, we have seen how many women fear speaking out about the discrimination and sexism they are facing and women being silenced, sometimes with the use of Non Disclosure Agreements.
In the light of all this, the Committee of WATCH believes that it is time to find a generous way to bring the Declaration and its arrangements to an end. This position is shared, as evidenced in a recent survey conducted by The Times, by around two thirds of currently serving clergy.
The 5GPs and the Declaration have been significantly abused and misapplied. Their existence also means that not all clergy are in communion or under the same episcopal structure. Bringing the arrangements to an end will bring both equality for women and re-unification of our Church.