Savi Hensman

Women bishops: how to move forward?

By Savi Hensman
November 27, 2012

The Church of England’s attempts to placate a small minority strongly opposed to women’s ordination have plunged it into crisis, without satisfying these opponents.

Various solutions have been proposed, some of which might cause even worse problems. To move forward, it may be helpful to look again at the Act of Synod 1993 and the culture as well as structures of the Church of England.

Synod’s ‘no’ to women bishops legislation

In November 2012, the Church of England’s national decision-making body, General Synod, failed to pass legislation which would have allowed women to be ordained as bishops. 42 of 44 dioceses had previously backed this.

The proposal won the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops and House of Clergy. It was in the House of Laity that it was lost, by a handful of votes. The result has left many in the church feeling hurt and demoralised, and damaged its ability to proclaim the good news of Christ in wider society.

The proposals contained elaborate measures to accommodate those who still believe that women cannot validly, or should not, be ordained. Parishes could still have chosen to be ministered to only by male clergy, with male vicars, and male bishops carrying out confirmations even in areas where the bishop was a woman. What is more, the choice of men would have been influenced by the reasons a parish expressed for wanting only male clerics.

However, it would have involved at least acknowledging the reality of women’s ordination, which was perhaps the sticking point for those most ardently opposed. Meanwhile some pro-inclusion campaigners who had made major concessions felt that their efforts had been spurned, while members of the public tried to make sense of the controversy.

Imagine, say, that a surgeon had started working at a hospital when all the medical staff were men and, even as the workforce changed, did not hide his belief that only men could be proper doctors. It would be remarkable if, instead of disciplining him, hospital managers agreed that he should work only with male medical students and doctors and even that the new head of surgery, a women, should delegate his supervision to a male colleague.

If this surgeon nevertheless loudly accused the hospital of not valuing him by making no significant adjustment for his views, and managers apologised for the distress they had caused him, most observers would be baffled, even if some of his admiring women patients agreed with his claims.

Yet many opponents do feel victimised. These tend to be conservative Anglo-Catholics or conservative evangelicals, though many other Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals are keen supporters of women’s ordination. Some object on the grounds that, supposedly, women cannot validly celebrate the sacraments such as Holy Communion, and that men’s ability to celebrate may also potentially be invalidated under certain circumstances (‘sacramental assurance’), while others claim that the Bible insists that only men should head families and churches (‘headship’).

The doctrine of male headship held by some conservative evangelicals also has profound implications for laypersons seeking to live out their faith, since it involves submission of women to men in homes and congregations and, some even argue, affects how and when women should lead in the workplace.

Other Anglicans however have argued that it is failure to ordain women to all orders of ministry that is inconsistent with key biblical principles and aspects of tradition. Certainly, C of E decisions decades ago to ordain both men and women as deacons and priests reflects growing awareness among its active members of the strength of such arguments.

General Synod’s recent rejection of proposals for women bishops has caused dismay not only in the church but also in wider society. This is especially so because of the C of E’s position as an established church, with various privileges including being awarded a number of seats in the House of Lords. Concern has been widely expressed, including in Parliament, and calls for action made.

Avoiding the temptation to bypass important principles

Various solutions have been proposed. However, some would have serious unintended negative consequences.

It has been suggested, for instance, that Parliament should remove the Church of England’s exemption from equalities legislation, or otherwise act to force progress towards women bishops. However, this would violate freedom of religion, and could make this church primarily a wing of the state rather than a spiritual community, further damaging its mission.

It is perfectly understandable that some people do not believe that an institutionally sexist body should not have special privileges, and politicians would be well within their rights to push for disestablishment. Moving in the opposite direction, however, would be problematic. The Church of England already tends to be too uncritical of the UK state, though baptism requires that allegiance to God should come above any earthly demands for loyalty (important if, say, a government orders attacks on the defenceless).

Freedom of religion and belief is an important human right: faith is too intimate an area of life for religious worship to be completely subject to the commands of the government of the day. This means that, when faith groups do embrace equality, it carries more weight.

Nor does the state usually want to get into fierce conflicts with citizens over whether, for instance, Muslims seeking a new imam for their mosque can interview only male candidates or womanist Wiccans worship the Mother Goddess in their own way.

Removing faith groups’ exemption from equality laws covering discrimination on grounds of gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, at least for the Church of England, would also reduce freedom for manoeuvre. Some compromise can be beneficial.

For instance, some people would like to see women bishops given the same legal status as their male counterparts but encouraged to make generous pastoral provision for those clinging to notions of a men-only priesthood.

But, if bishops were expected to behave like top managers in, say, public transport or street cleaning, they would have to crack down on anything less than full commitment to gender equality, in the same way that they might root out racism. This could result in unnecessary distress, disruption and division.

Another suggested approach goes to the other extreme. Some might hope that the problem can be fixed by further negotiations involving Church of England leaders and campaigners for and against women’s ordination, probably by still more concessions to those who reject women’s ordained ministry.

Talks may well be valuable. But key issues need to be openly debated, since they affect the whole Church of England. If women bishops’ leadership is undermined, their dioceses are likely to suffer, and the image of the Church further harmed. And if, in effect, opponents are allowed to become a church (or churches) within the church, with what appears to be a parallel set of bishops, the episcopal system that has held the Church of England together since it was founded, despite wide theological diversity, will have been jettisoned – a radical break with tradition that many of us would think unwarranted.

If such concessions are really on the table, the rest of the Anglican Communion should also be consulted, though ultimately the decision should be the Church of England’s. Having just one diocesan bishop in a (geographically bounded) diocese is a core principle of Anglicanism worldwide.

Another suggestion is that laity should not have a say on matters such as these and that democracy in the Church of England should be reduced. Yet, at various stages, bishops and other clergy have posed the greatest obstacles to moving towards greater equality of various kinds.

Indeed, it could be argued that a failure of leadership by senior clergy over decades was largely responsible for the ‘no’ vote on this occasion. If archbishops and bishops had paid more attention to making the case for full inclusion of women bishops, the result would almost certainly have been different.

However, the issue of why the House of Laity is so unrepresentative of lay members of the Church of England is worth addressing. This includes examining the possibility of direct elections.

At present those on the electoral roll of a parish can vote for deanery synod representatives, who then elect lay representatives to General Synod. (In practice, the role of deanery synod rep may not be contested – it may be more a matter of finding people willing to take on the responsibility.) This is rather like electing MPs not directly but rather through ward councillors, who are elected by ordinary voters.

Undermining the principles of freedom of religion, unity of each diocese under one bishop and lay representation would damage the Church of England still further without necessarily resolving divisions over women bishops.

The Act of Synod and its aftermath

Ordinarily, when churches – Anglican or otherwise – come to realise that in Christ divisions of ethnicity and gender really are broken down (Galatians 3.28), women are admitted to ministry as priests or elders on the same basis as men, at least in theory. Of course in church and society, sexism and many other forms of discrimination persist to some degree even when they are apparently rejected.

However the Act of Synod 1993 set out complicated provisions to protect opponents of women’s ordination and allow limited discrimination. Some appear to believe that this involved a promise that, in perpetuity, they could continue not to recognise women’s ordained ministry and indeed that more clergy with such views could be ordained. However, there is some confusion about what was intended at the time.

“The overwhelming impression I had from reading the debates was of the House of Bishops trying to persuade General Synod members into being as generous as possible to those who had been shocked by the decision taken in November 1992, and members of Synod responding with some uncertainty about what they were doing and why, but with similar generosity,” Rosalind Rutherford wrote after re-examining key documents. It was “clear from questions left unanswered that there had been no detailed scrutiny of the measure and how it might work in practice.”

The House of Bishops did indeed state that “Those who for a variety of reasons cannot conscientiously accept that women may be ordained as priests will continue to hold a legitimate and recognised position within the Church of England.”

Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1993 stated that the House of Bishops’ guiding principles included “determination to maintain the ecclesial integrity... of each diocese under the pastoral authority of its bishop” and “rejection of the notion that bishops and priest who participate in the ordination of women thereby invalidate their... sacramental ministries”.

The Archbishop of York hoped that the provincial episcopal visitors (supporting parishes opposed to women’s ordination) would not “rush round conducting services here, there, everywhere ... My hope is that they will act more as friends and advisers for clergy and parishes, in a position to bring their concerns to diocesan bishops”. They were intended to “do some ordinary episcopal work and be part of a diocesan team”.

He also stated that the Act of Synod contained “a high degree of flexibility... One has heard voices on one side saying, ‘We do not know what the future is.’ We have to live with those kinds of uncertainties. This is why we must not set proposals in concrete. We must make a commitment, give an assurance and go ahead in faith, not knowing what the future is going to bring.”

To at least some participants in the debate at Synod, the arrangements were meant to give the church time and space to test whether this development was truly Spirit-led, or a human innovation that would ultimately fail (Acts 5.33-39). “For me the greatest principle of all is that we need time to decide and to test whether what we have done is right,” said Canon John Sentamu (now Archbishop of York).

What happened in practice was rather different from what some church leaders intended, as the gap between opponents of women’s ordination and the rest of the church grew. One of the provincial episcopal visitors (‘flying bishops’), Andrew Burnham, explained after he had resigned as Bishop of Ebbsfleet, “I took the view that what we were aiming to be was a diocese... bishop, priests, deacons, and laypeople. And therefore that, even though we weren’t an actual diocese, we should organise ourselves as if we were... We did all this as if we were setting out to be a diocese, which irritated people no end... We didn’t have the legal authority to do any of it.”

Some opponents changed their views, but those most set in their ways were allowed increasingly to become a ‘church within a church’. What is more, some may have felt even more miserable than might have happened under a system that more straightforwardly affirmed women’s equal ministry, because their leaders kept telling them that they were being ill-treated and senior church figures kept sympathising, reinforcing their sense of being marginalised. How did this happen?

A theological deficit

In the mid-twentieth century, the mainstream Anglican view was that the truth might not be straightforward, and the quest for it might sometimes be painful, but nevertheless was worthwhile. The 1958 Lambeth Conference of bishops gratefully acknowledged “our debt to the host of devoted scholars who, worshipping the God of Truth, have enriched and deepened our understanding of the Bible, not least by facing with intellectual integrity the questions raised by modern knowledge and modern criticism.” Affirming the work of scientists, it called on Christians “to learn reverently from every new disclosure of truth”.

Unity was important, but – in the view of Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1960 – this could not be separated from truth and holiness. “In talk and thought about Christian unity, appeal is frequently and rightly made to the prayer of our Lord in the seventeenth chapter of St. John. There it is recorded that our Lord prayed for the unity of His disciples. It is equally true, but not nearly so frequently mentioned, that in the same prayer our Lord prayed also for the sanctification of the disciples; and in particular for their sanctification in the truth, 'sanctify them in truth - thy word is truth'.”

He pointed out" “The fulfilment of Christ's prayer has happened in the working out of a Church which is at once the Body of Christ and composed of frail and sinful human flesh. And that has ever been so. Once for all possessing Christ's holiness, the Church is the place where that holiness is wrought out in conflict.”

Increasingly, the importance of justice, a key biblical theme, including willingness to confront injustice within as well as outside churches, was recognised. For instance the 1973 Anglican Consultative Council called on member churches “to acknowledge the Church's vocation to side with the oppressed in empowering them to live their own lives in freedom, even at some sacrifice to itself, while at the same time seeking in the power of Christian love to bring about the true liberation of the oppressor”.

In 1979, the ACC urged churches to “rigorously assess their own structures, attitudes and modes of working to ensure the promotion of human rights within them, and to seek to make the church truly an image of God's just Kingdom and witness in today’s world”.

But by the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, the Church of England was more hesitant about pursuing truth and seeking justice where this might involve disturbance and challenge.

Perhaps this was in part because of the influence of post-modernism and its questioning of the notion of a single, objective truth, and also maybe a backlash against the questioning of privilege and power. There was also increasing sensitivity to the feelings of those feeling distressed by change, rather than those facing disadvantage due to some aspect of their identity.

Maybe some aspects of identity politics too played their part, in emphasising the suffering of minorities and women without pointing out that it is being unnecessarily deprived of good things that is the key problem.

For instance, a woman priest may suffer if she is working amongst, and identified with, an especially marginalised community, or lives in a part of the world where the church is persecuted, but (as with a male priest in a similar situation) it will be a consolation that she is seeking to live the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). Likewise if she has grown up in a racist family and now realises that much of what she took for granted was wrong, the pain of this realisation may be necessary to her emotional and spiritual growth. However if she suffers because she is seeking to undertake certain tasks for the sake of the Gospel and being blocked purely on account of her gender, this is unnecessary, and hence all the more painful.

This is not to say that sensitivity should not be shown to people’s feelings whether they are right or wrong. But if making them more comfortable involves depriving others of justice, and they themselves lose out through failing to perceive large numbers of their fellow-humans as they truly are, relying instead on stereotypes, this may do more harm than good.

The women bishops fiasco happened largely because of an emphasis on ‘the common good’ that involved shying away from conflict, in the opinion of sociologist of religion Linda Woodhead:

'Mrs X is not happy, her conscience is troubled' becomes the trump card when you are seeking the common good. The fact that Mrs X may be wrong, or supporting an injustice, become matters of secondary importance.

This goes together with a characteristically Anglican ethic which elevates gentleness and peaceableness and proscribes any form of anger. You can be saddened, but you can never have a knockabout row. It's not a good recipe for testing views and arriving at the truth.

This, she points out, is far removed from Jesus’ teaching “'Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I came to bring not peace but a sword.” Jesus clearly disavowed violence (the 'sword' is a metaphor, and in his last commandment to his followers he told them to put away their actual weapons), but in some instances the issue remains not how avoid conflict but to transform it.

The failure to reflect on this is perhaps connected with diminishing emphasis on the importance of theology, and a more managerialist approach, a subject addressed by theologina Sarah Coakley in her analysis of what went wrong in Synod. A lack of theological coherence, in particular allowing women priests but not bishops, is in her view damaging the Church of England:

The most dangerous element in this long-running saga has been insidiously hidden under an almost farcical set of pragmatic and political attempts at compromise, attempts to "protect" conservatives from the visceral dread of female authority. In short, the real issues are theological, and it is the Church's current theological amnesia and confusion which is preventing it from thinking straight...

In our supposedly "secular" culture, the Church of England seems to have succumbed to the idea that theological ideas do not matter very much, and this may bespeak a deeper malaise even than the current crisis itself. Young people are turning back to the Church, longing for spiritual and intellectual bread; by and large stones await them, even despite a most promising new generation of young priest-scholars (women and men).

This incoherence is very different from:

the distinctive Anglican tradition of theological balance - the desire and commitment to honour both Catholic and Reformed traditions...

So how should this incoherence be addressed? The only way is to face and resolve it, not to compound it by additional theological confusions or practical evasions.

Being guided by “secular bureaucratic models of ‘leadership,’ ‘efficiency’ and ‘mission-efficacy’” is, Coakley argues, highly inadequate. Without a “focus on the underlying theological and philosophical issues... no lasting solution to the issue of female bishops can be achieved”.

This is not to suggest that the church cannot learn from good leadership outside but, even in secular settings, a focus on what an organisation or community is primarily meant to be doing is important

Facing the questions

While the issue of women bishops is indeed urgent, there appears to be no quick-fix solution that might not make matters even worse in the longer term. However, the C of E could immediately start to move towards resolving the issue, though further conflict and pain are inevitable whatever path is chosen.

Drawing on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, what is the vocation of the baptised and, within this, of deacons, priests and bishops? What authority do bishops need to assist the community of believers in growing in faith, hope and love and advancing the kingdom of heaven, in a world marred by prejudice, hatred and misogynist and other forms of violence?

Such theological questions need to be addressed, and the answers explained in ways that those who are not professional theologians can understand. Otherwise, compromises may be made which damage not only women clergy but also the very fabric of the church.

Learning from those in other denominations who are wrestling with similar issues may be helpful, especially since the church’s future in England may well involve far greater ecumenism, rooted mainly in grassroots cooperation.

Prayerfulness and perseverance are needed in order to move forward, at a time when despair can seem tempting. It is as if, after a long and exhausting journey, within sight of the destination, the car has somehow driven off the road and got mired in mud. But, even in such circumstances, God can and does make wonderful things happen.


© Savitri Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics with a strong interest in Anglican affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate and contributed to the 2008 book, Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Ekklesia / Shoving Leopard).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.