Women bishops: delaying this historic vote was a blessing in disguise
Today, in a historic victory, the General Synod of the Church of England has paved the way for women bishops. About time, says chaplain Jemima Thackray, who once opposed the idea. But let’s not be fooled into thinking it’s plain sailing for the CofE from here on
I am also pleased that the tone of the debate was one of mutual respect and understanding; a change of attitude thanks largely to Archbishop Welby bringing to bear his experience of reconciliation work with militia groups in Africa.
“We’re not a political party where you chuck out the ones you don’t agree with,” he said over the weekend. “The church is a family and you may disagree vehemently with each other but you have to live together.” This approach has been a balm to the wounds inflicted by historical back biting over the issue.
Yet, at the same time as celebrating this victory, I feel exhausted to have been through yet another Synod debate on the subject and weary at the thought of the reconciliation efforts yet to come.
For although women are now certain to be bishops – that is not in question – the new legislation allows parishes who disagree with female oversight to request a male bishop. And if this is disputed then provision has been made for an ombudsman to settle the matter.
And disputes there will be.
Archbishop Justin Welby. Photo: Geoff Pugh
The lazy part of me wishes that the liberal wing of the church could just bulldoze right over the evangelicals and Anglo Catholics who oppose women in leadership, offering no concessions and allowing the church to get on with its primary task of caring for the communities it serves. In my even wilder dreams, I imagine the church at the vanguard of every progressive cause, leading the way in the campaign for nuclear disarmament for example, or gay rights, rather than always being the slowest on the uptake of every social development.
Yet, perhaps the fact that the church always seems to lag behind the rest of society is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the silver lining of the funereal pace at which it catches up is that change, when it finally comes, is taken up much more holistically – with hearts won rather than just minds beaten into submission.
The unintended consequence of rapid social change is that society often preaches before it practises. In the secular world, a woman can lead a multinational corporation and yet insidious sexism in her boardrooms will still be rife. There’s supposedly been a sexual revolution and yet page 3 still exists. No one is saying that the journey towards gender equality should be slowed down – it’s the job of the courageous few to drive us all forward – but perhaps the one benefit of delay, or resistance, is that those at the back are given a chance to catch up. And so it is with the church: maybe the endless quibbling about women bishops will mean we’ve ended up with something much more sustainable and inclusive in the end.
Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin is expected to become Britain’s first woman bishop. Photo: Clara Molden
I say this as someone who has learnt from personal experience. My confession: ten years ago I would have been standing alongside the likes of Susie Leafe and those other opponents of their own sex being in church leadership (indeed, after the 2012 vote is was revealed thatalmost half the opponents to the episcopate being opened-up to women were, in fact, women).
I agreed with them, on theological grounds, that “the spiritual direction of the church should primarily be in the hands of men.” I believed this, for a time, in my early twenties – not because I had some kind of weird self-hating misogynistic complex, but because I had discovered a faith which made me feel fully alive for the first time in my life. I thought that honouring it meant labouring under the misapprehension that the old ways were the best ways.
I read the Bible literally, thinking that respecting it meant reading it like a car manual – a book of exact instructions for life, not a collection of beautiful writings which are a launch pad into an interpretative adventure. The journey to where I am now – being the person I was created to be – has been slow. And I’d never have got there if I’d just been shouted down by liberals. I made it through many hours of gracious discussion and prayer. The result is that I now really feel what I believe.
When, like me, the church does finally arrive late to the party it is often, miraculously, treated like the guest of honour. I’ve spoken to several non-church-going young women about the issue of female bishops. All of them applauded the church for today’s decision-making, rather than seeing it as an outrage that it’s been legally possible for a state sanctioned institution to exclude women from its top jobs for so long.
So, as the mediated dispute rumbles on over the coming months – and the church faces yet more controversial debates – I hope society continues to have both high and low expectations of us. As Archbishop Welby says, the church is a family – and that, as we all know, takes a lot of work to get right.
Join the conversation around women bishops with Telegraph Wonder Women
In this article from ‘The Telegraph’, by Anglican chaplain, Jemima Thackray, she is able to admit that her former opposition to Women Bishops in the Church of England came from her early conservative beginnings in the Faith. Believing in the literalist understanding of Bible passages concerning the patriarchal nature of the Judeo-Christian ethos in the Early Church, Jemima was one of those women who had thought at the time that leadership was meant to be the sole prerogative of men, and therefore un-Biblical (un-natural?) for women.
However, with the progression of her own situation in the Church, she has come to realise the truth of the later discovery of Saint Paul that – as far as ministry and mission are concerned – and indeed in every other way connected with the propagation of the Faith – “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, master nor slave, but all are baptized by the same Holy Spirit”.
Perhaps next Tuesday’s celebration of the apostolic life and witness of Mary Magdalene (Feast-day, July 22) will help other women to better understand that Jesus himself ‘sent’ (apostello) Mary of Magdala to bring the Good News of his resurrection to the male disciples. The reality there, was that those male disciples did not believe her. Why? Because she was a woman! Things do need to change – especially in the age of enlightenment when women are valued as co-workers in the Mission of the Church as well as the secular world of industry, commerce and learning – not to mention international diplomacy and states-womanship (H.M. The Queen!).
We, in New Zealand, have been used for some time to the ministry of women in our ACANZP setting in the South Pacific. We realise the strength and compassion that women bring into the proclamation and service of the Gospel. Our very own Bishop of Christchurch, The Rt.Reverend Victoria Matthews (a former diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, and current member of the A.C.C. Faith and Order Commission) is a splendid example of the influence of a woman – in leading our Diocese of Christchurch into a viable post-earthquake situation, which is proving to be a task that even the most capable of men might find more than daunting.
I thank God for the courage, insight and pastoral and leadership skills of a Woman Bishop
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
Father Ron Smith