New Era for Women in Church and Society

Royal Weddings & Lady Bishops – Time for Change?

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds

Meghan & VivPictures: Meghan Markle (left); Very Revd Vivienne Faull, Dean of York (right)

Dashing in for long shorts for my son, not wanting to miss a moment of spring sunshine, the supermarket’s t-shirts slogans took me by surprise: ‘When Harry met Meghan’ filled the foyer in all sorts of glittering shapes and sizes.

Marriage mania was clear with tiaras and well wishes to be seen in every shop front along the parade, from the bargain outlet to Harvey Nicks.  Sadly, Meghan’s own father is not getting quite such a good press as the red-tops persist in digging for dirt. When none is to be found, resorting to the unflattering photograph leads to idle if not malicious speculation.

All to be expected, perhaps, and now that it has been confirmed that Meghan’s father will no longer walk her down the aisle. Headlines have commented that this departure from ‘tradition’ in which a father or other male relative is expected to ‘give away’ their female offspring as if ‘owned’ has not been warmly received by the Royal family, while a Royal Commentator suggested on Radio 4 that ‘the woman who gave birth to her should [walk her down the aisle]’ as a positive solution to Meghan’s father being indisposed.

It defies belief that in the 21st century an independent woman might need to be ‘given away’ by her father and not accompanied in mutual love by the woman who has nurtured her throughout her childhood and well into adulthood.  Such rank misogyny leaves me breathless in the 21st century on a day when Vivienne Faull was announced as the 15thfemale bishop, following Mike Hill as Bishop of Bristol.  Dean Faull has pioneered women’s ministry for decades from the moment she was the first woman to train for ordination at St John’s College, Nottingham going on to be one of the first women deacons in 1982, becoming Chaplain of Gloucester Cathedral in 1990. In 1994, she was among the first women to be ordained priest, becoming Canon Pastor of Coventry Cathedral.

Coming full circle after a series of high-ranking church roles Dean Faull whose own mother was brought up in Bristol, said on Tuesday that the move would be ‘like returning home’ as she becomes Bishop of a diocese that was the first to ordain women as priests 24 years ago.  Dean Faull declared that she wanted ‘the diocese to continue to show that pioneering courage.’ Those are not empty words coming from the first woman to head the chapter of an English cathedral.

These two women will both experience the Church of England at her best, one in St George’s Chapel, Windsor as she marries into the family whose Matriarch not only heads up the Monarchy she is to join, but who is indeed the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Harry’s Father would surely never hear Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II referred to as ‘the woman who gave birth to him’? Such rank disrespect of any woman beggars belief, particularly from BBC Radio 4 who spent an entire season exploring the ‘locker-room’ language of men towards women.

Dean Faull, on the other hand, will be consecrated as the 57th Bishop of Bristol at a service at St Paul’s Cathedral on 3 July, and installed at Bristol Cathedral in the autumn, experiencing the moving magnificence of a service of consecration that continues to mark the historic unfolding of an egalitarian respect of gender, ecclesiology and episcopal order in the Church of England. No doubt she, too, will encounter moments of disrespect, challenge and demeaning language as she continues her pioneering ministry in the ongoing field of firsts.

Dean Faull has been quoted as saying, “what has been lovely over the past four years is to see [women] emerging as bishops, suffragan or diocesan, and watch how they have begun to establish themselves in very different ways, and be themselves, which is transformative of the Church and perceptions of the Church.” (Church Times, May 15th, 2018)

Meghan Markle will also emerge and establish herself as a Duchess in very different ways to those who have married into the Windsors before, and we know how well that went for both Princess Diana, Harry’s Mum, and his Aunt, Sarah Ferguson.  However difficult their journey’s, their advent was and continues to be transformative for the Royal family as women bishops are to the Church. Being herself whilst also being a Royal will be a profound challenge in terms of who she is as well as within her new role as a Princess by marriage.

Both Ms Markle and Dean Faull are women making history this year; breaking new ground, heading into territory as yet uncharted by any other woman before them. They deserve the respect and support of those within the institutions they are joining in order to fully flourish and grow into the enormity of the mantles being thrust upon them. Each will bear burdens large and small, bearable and unbearable as the full weight of their tiara/mitre settles upon them.

Perhaps it is time for us all to put down our rocks and pointed pens and to begin a sea-change of kindness and forgiveness where we acknowledge the imperfections of these mere human beings thrust into as harsh a spotlight as can be imagined. Is it not the time for cynicism to give way to true Christian charity as to make space for the ‘other’ to flourish and grow, seeing what the new and unexpected has to offer us in terms of enriching and enlivening that which has become so perfectly predictable as to become more pride and prejudice than sense and sensibility?

To both Dean Faull and Meghan Markle I raise my hat – may they each flourish as only human beings can as they find their place in our dearly beloved Church; and as they find their place may the love of God, surrounding and upholding them, be seen in and through them, and in all their works within the Church and beyond, to the glory of God. Amen.

_____________________________________________________

This ‘Media News’ item highlights the progress being made in the acceptance of women in the Church and in society. It also remarks on the change in courtly protocols that welcomes the arrival of Megan Markle, an African-American woman into the Royal Family as the bride of one of the Princes of the Realm.

Overall, then, the writer detects a new era for the emancipation of women that has gradually (and very slowly) made advances in both Church and State that might have been unthinkable prior to the advent of World War II.

The election of a woman – The Rt.Revd. Susan Mullaly, a former nurse appointed to the third highest position in C of E  as the Bishop of London – who says she respects those who object to the choice of a woman to this particular See – has been followed by the election of another woman, the former Dean of York, The Very Revd. Vivienne Fall – to become the new Bishop of Bristol.

The Mother Church of England has come a very long way from its traditional patriarchalism in ministry when men ruled as arbiters of what was right and proper for every member of society – often being seen as opposed to the emancipation of women in society.

These doughty women who have now taken up roles of seniority as bishops of the Church will help the Church to better understand what is required of it to become the Good News of the Gospel of Christ to ALL people – without distinction of race, gender, sexual orientation or status in society. And that must surely be good for everyone.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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