We all know that the Church of England allows parishes to say that they will only have a man as their vicar or they need additional oversight if their bishop is female – on the grounds of ‘theological conscience.’ And women are expected to flourish in this context. But recently I discovered another seam of institutional bias against women in the Church.
This relates to the Crown Nominations Commission (the CNC) and how appointments of Diocesan bishops – the most senior bishops in the Church of England – are made. As I’ll explain, the current system makes it much more difficult for a female candidate to be appointed. And so, only 1 out of the last 10 appointments has been a woman and 7 out of the last 28 appointments (since 2015 when women were first allowed to be bishops) have been women. In summary, we have appointed three times more men than women since women became eligible and, most recently, ten times.
I can’t help wondering whether the skewed and secretive system by which this comes about 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.
Let me explain what’s going on. First, when a Diocesan Bishop is to be appointed, a 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 six “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 one of these “pairs” comprises a Traditionalist Anglo Catholic priest who doesn’t believe the Church of England has the right to ordain women and a clergyman from the Conservative Evangelical tradition which questions whether women should be church leaders. Another pair comprises two lay women, one of whom is Traditionalist Anglo Catholic and the other is Conservative Evangelical. And another pair comprises two lay men who have in the past expressed reservations about women’s ministry.
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.
The last appointment of a female Diocesan bishop was Helen-Ann Hartley as Bishop of Newcastle in 2022 and there have been five appointments since then, all 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.
The situation is even more discriminatory when it comes to theological views about sexuality. There are 4 pairs of elected Synod CNC members who are conservative on this matter.
This is a sorry state of affairs, especially given the 17 episcopal appointments that CNCs will have made before the term of the current Synod elected members is up in 2027. According to a recent survey conducted by The Times, about two thirds of clergy want to see the provisions allowing parishes to reject women’s ministry come to an end and only about 4% of parishes have passed resolutions to restrict women’s ministry. But we are working with a system that makes it much harder for female candidates to be appointed to the Church’s most senior appointments. In the same survey, over 80% of participating clergy 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 6 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 laypeople 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, especially if they have been appointed recently. No wonder that many frontline clergy and laypeople see senior clergy as becoming more and more out of touch.
Martine Oborne, Chair of WATCH