- The Frock and the Church
Last broadcast yesterday, 13:30 on BBC Radio 4 (FM only).
When it meets in July 2012, the General Synod of the Church of England will be voting on legislation that paves the way for the ordination of women bishops. If it is approved, the first female bishops could start to practice in 2014, twenty years after the first women were ordained in Bristol as Church of England priests. But it may be rejected or deferred. Whatever the outcome, the move threatens chaos for a church that is struggling with other modern day issues such as same sex marriage.
Several bishops have already resigned over the prospect of their counterparts becoming female. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Gloucester said in May, “the worst possible outcome would be for the legislation to go down at final approval in July. There would be a haemorrhaging of women from the Church.”
This is one of the biggest challenges facing this long standing institution, so how will it cope?
To find out, Charlotte Smith walks the Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury, visiting churches, vicars and congregations, and asking key players in the Church whether it can accept women into its upper echelons and how it will resolve its differences – if at all.
Among those she talks to are Rev Martyn Neale, vicar of Holy Trinity, in Blackwater; April Alexander, member of the House of Laity in the General Synod; Andrea Trevenna, Bible Teacher for Women at St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks; the Bishop of Buckingham, Rt Rev Alan Wilson; and Rev Claire Edwards, Canon at Canterbury Cathedral. From them she gains an understanding of how wide the divide is between those who can and those who cannot accept female bishops, yet is struck by how they all wish to remain in a church that has long accommodated a broad range of beliefs, but may not be able to this time.
I listened very attentively to the story of this little pilgrimage of Charlotte Smith, from Winchester to Canterbury, in search of enlightenment on the issue of Women Bishops, which will be debated at the Church of England General Synod in about one week’s time.
Each of the people she interviews – both men and women – along the way, have their own opinion about whether or not women should be involved in the leadership of the Church and at what specific level. There are those (among them, a woman) who believes that, although women can have a role in teaching other women, they should never aspire to leadership of men. Other people were sure that, unless the Church accepts women in leaderships, there will be a great movement away from the Church – of both women and men who believe that there should be no gender discrimination in the Church.
The final interview was with a female clergy-person in ministry at Canterbury Cathedral, whose eirenic testimony bore witness to the fact that it has now been more than 17 years since women were allowed to be priested in the Church of England, and that perhaps it is time that they were allowed to take their part in the governance of the Church. She said that the original Draft Measure (brought forward from the last meeting of G.S.) – although involving women in a compromise of their role as a diocesan bishop – was agreed by 42 of the dioceses charged with examining the Draft Measure approving the ordination of women bishops. The subsequent amendments made by the House of Bishops, she felt, were enshrining in law something that ought to be left in the hands of a woman diocesan bishop to allow – ministry in her diocese from a male bishop acceptable to those who could not, in conscience, accept her ministry.
I pray that the Holy Spirit of God will hover over the upcoming meeting of the General Synod, so that whatever God wants for the Church of England at this time in its history, may be bought into practice.
Father ron Smith, Christchurch, new Zealand