Congratulations to Bishop Debbie Sellin, whose appointment as the next Bishop of Peterborough was announced today, and prayers for a fruitful ministry. The Church of England will now have 7 female Diocesan Bishops out of a total of 42 Diocesan Bishops and will have made 8 appointments of women as Diocesan Bishops out of the 29 appointments made since women became eligible as bishops in 2015.
Congratulations to the Peterborough Vacancy in See Committee which stated, during the discernment process, that it was seeking to appoint someone who ‘wholeheartedly ordains men and women.’ Vacancy in See Committees all need to make clear statements like this, otherwise it may well be assumed in the appointments process that a candidate who does not ordain women or accept women as church leaders is acceptable.
Congratulations also to Bishop Debbie for being selected, despite the disadvantages that female candidates face when appointments of Diocesan Bishops are made. This unlevel playing field is evidenced by the fact that the Church of England has appointed three times more men than women as Diocesan Bishops and, most recently, over five times.
Let me explain what’s going on. First, when a Diocesan Bishop is to be appointed, a Crown Nominations Committee (CNC) is assembled. This CNC has 14 members comprising: the two Archbishops; 6 members elected from the Diocese concerned; and 6 members from a group of CNC members that have been elected by General Synod to serve in this capacity for a term of five years. Synod elects 6 “pairs” of CNC members for this purpose and, for each appointment, the pair can decide which of them will sit on the particular CNC.
So far, so good. But three of these “pairs” comprise Traditionalist Anglo Catholics who do not believe the Church of England has the right to ordain women and/or Conservative Evangelicals who question whether women should be church leaders. This implies that at least 3 out of 14 members of any CNC do not believe that women should be bishops, or even priests. And that is before we take into account the 6 locally elected members of the CNC where there is often representation of those who do not fully accept women’s ministry too.
When it comes to voting, a candidate needs 10 out of the 14 possible votes of CNC members to be appointed. We don’t know how individual members of the CNCs vote, because they are allowed to do this in secret and are therefore not accountable. Under the process, members can claim verbally to be supportive of certain candidates but then not vote for them in the ballot. Furthermore, if a member abstains that is equivalent to a No – because the candidate still needs 10 votes in their favour. A few years ago, in the Oxford diocese, the CNC had two female candidates and neither were approved because of abstentions. The process had to be repeated, and then a man was appointed.
9 of the last 11 appointments have been men, including the appointment of one Diocesan bishop who is on the Council of The Society, a network of Anglo Catholic clergy within the Church of England who do not believe the Church of England has the right to ordain women.
For a Church that claims, in its famous Five Guiding Principles, that ‘it is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all without reference to gender,’ these arrangements seem extraordinary. I can’t help wondering whether the skewed and secretive system, by which Diocesan Bishops – of whom many sit in our House of Lords – are appointed, is actually even legal. While the Church of England has certain exemptions under the Equality Act 2010 to discriminate on grounds of sex, it does not have carte blanche.
This is a sorry state of affairs, especially given the many episcopal appointments that are due to be made in the next few years. According to a recent survey conducted by The Times, about two thirds of participating clergy want to see the provisions allowing parishes to reject women’s ministry come to an end and over 80% said they would be happy to support a female Archbishop of Canterbury. But, to become Archbishop of Canterbury, candidates are generally expected to be experienced Diocesan bishops first – and, at the moment, only 7 out of 42 are women.
All this implies that not only is there a long way to go in ridding the Church of discrimination on the grounds of sex but also there is something badly wrong with our governance and, in particular, how minority voices have gained such a lot of power in General Synod. Overwhelmingly, Anglican clergy and lay people want equality for all people in our Church – but the skewed composition of the bodies that elect our bishops means that many senior clergy do not reflect these views. Furthermore, about 8-9% of bishops are Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics or Conservative Evangelicals, when only 4% of parishes have passed resolutions to restrict women’s ministry. No wonder many frontline clergy and laypeople see senior clergy as becoming more and more out of touch.
Martine Oborne, Chair