Synod, WATCH & Women Bishops
Ruth Chapman is on the WATCH National Committee (Women And The Church); an influential group in the UK campaigning for women’s equality within the Church of England. Ruth is passionate about the need for women bishops – a belief is rooted in her faith and her feminism. I asked her to explain, to those who may not know, how voting happens within the Anglican church and how people in the pews can have more of a voice.
VB: Ruth, does it shock you that in 2013 we are still in need of organisations to campaign for women’s equality within the church?
// Ruth Chapman //
RC: Yes. Anyone who heard Marin Alsop speak at the last night of the Proms can’t fail to have been impressed. Ms Alsop was the first woman to conduct at the Proms and like her I find it is astonishing that in 2013 there are still times where it is the ‘first time’ a woman is doing something.
VB: Do you think feminism is still needed as a movement?
RC: Absolutely. It really troubles me when I hear people express the view that we don’t need feminism anymore – that the gender equality goals set out by feminist ideology have been achieved. I would say that it onlyappears that battle has been won. It also makes me feel incredibly sad and angry at the abuse directed at high profile women who campaign on a feminist agenda. I’m proud to say I am feminist. I believe women and men to be equal – and they deserve to treated as such. As society stands at this moment, this is not the case.
VB: In the light of that, how did the vote on women bishops make you feel last November?
RC: Well, one of the most influential places where this equality is most certainly not a reality is the Church of England. I should clarify at this point that I am a practising Christian and a communicant member of the Church of England. I would say I am proud to be a member of the Church of England, most of the time I am, but last November I was not so proud. When General Synod voted down the measure that would have (finally) allowed women to become bishops in the Church of England, although the legislation was not all it could have been by a long way, I did not feel proud of my church.
VB: Did it make you want to give up on fighting for equality in the Church?
RC: No, actually what happened at Synod reinvigorated both my faith and my feminism. It also energised my engagement in my church, going beyond my parish church, to become part of the movement to ensure that the Church of England becomes the place it truly should be; fully accepting the ministry of women at every level – including of course the Episcopacy (becoming Bishops).
VB: How did your desire to be part of practical change in the church take shape? What did you do?
RC: During the disappointment and disillusion I felt in the weeks following Synod’s November vote, I had a moment when my feminism shouted out very loudly, “GET INVOLVED, BE ACTIVE!” So I had several chats with my vicar about where I could channel my passion on this issue. One of the first steps was to fill a vacant position on our church’s Deanery Synod. The other really important step was to join Women and the Church (WATCH). I have since been co-opted onto the WATCH national committee.
VB: What advice would you give to other Anglicans wanting to help change the church?
RC: It’s about getting involved. Make sure you are on your church’s electoral role and consider standing for Deanery Synod next year so that you have the opportunity to elect the next General Synod in 2015. Stand yourself for Diocesan or General Synod. Join WATCH and campaign for the full inclusion and celebration of women’s ministry on every level in the Church of England. Be active and be proud of both your faith and your feminism, they are both so important and work so well together!
VB: In case people aren’t aware of the significance of being on “Synod” or how these forms of the Church of England’s governance work, tell us about them.
RC: The Church of England makes its decisions via “Synod” and the votes that are cast there. It’s similar to Parliament in that it debates and passes legislation for the Church of England. The General Synod is similar to central government, Parliament. Then there are more local synods, Deanery and Diocesan, which are like local council authorities and boroughs.
Those on the “Deanery Synod” level vote to elect members to the “Diocesan Synod” and the “General Synod”. As we saw last November, it’s the members of General Synod that get to cast votes on weighty matters like women bishops.
VB: Tell us about the “Houses”…
RC: Yes, within General Synod there are three “Houses”, the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. The House of Laity is comprised of lay people from the Church of England who are voted onto General Synod.
A two thirds majority in each House was needed to pass the women bishops legislation last November. This was achieved in both the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy but failed by 6 votes in the House of Laity. That is why it is so important that for the next General Synod Elections in 2015, the right people, who truly support women bishops are elected.
VB: Give us a breakdown of how someone who attends an Anglican church can join Synod…
RC: Anyone from a parish church who is on that church’s electoral register can put themselves forward to be on Deanery Synod and the next elections for this are in the Spring of 2014. If you are elected to a Deanery Synod, you will be able to select and vote for those people standing for General Synod. You can find out their position on many things, including women’s ministry.
Some people standing for General Synod profess to be supporters of women’s ministry but actually, in reality this means running the Sunday school, arranging the flowers and making tea. All of these are valuable and vital parts of a healthy church – but should not solely be done by women and it certainly should not be the extent of their ministry.
So when voting for General Synod members it is important to find out exactly where people stand on the issue. By electing the right people to Diocesan and General Synod you could affect the votes on women’s equality in the future.
VB: Who from history inspires you to challenge the status quo about gender equality?
RC: People who have been active and become part of the change. Women like Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a campaigner for women’s franchise; the London Matchgirls strike in 1888, and the Ford Sewing Machinists strike in 1968. Change does not happen by itself. Feminism to me is active, not just a theory.
VB: Any final thoughts?
RC: I wholeheartedly believe in and support women in the priesthood and I look forward with huge enthusiasm and excitement for the day when women will be admitted to the Episcopate and can finally take their place, their rightful place, alongside men on every level within the Church of England. Until then my feminism will keep me active in doing all I can to bring about change.
I’m a definite fan of Ruth Chapman’s feminist views on the need for Women Bishops in the Church if England. In answer to questions by journalist Vicky Beeching, Ruth gives succinct and more than adequate replies that many Anglicans around the world may be now disposed to agree with – especially in the light of present-day understanding of the expanded roles of women in society at large.
Ruth highlights the apparent reluctance of the hierarchy of the Church of England to agree to the unfettered jurisdiction of any woman who might – through the upcoming legislation that may allow women to become bishops in the C. of E. – actually be given charge of a diocese. The tendency of the hierarchy seems to be: ‘Yes, let women become bishops, BUT we must allow those who do not agree with their role as ministers in the Church to be given ‘special arrangements’, so that they can avoid their ministry’.
Unless women are allowed by the Church of England to become bishops – on a basis equal to that of male bishops – there will always be a culture of discrimination against women’s leadership roles in the Church on account of their gender! If this is not political gender discrimination at its most blatant, I cannot conceive of anything more obvious – and down-putting in the realm of sexism in the Church.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand