Thursday, 26 March 2015

Female Bishops: Crossing the Rubicon

Today we have the news we have waited for so long. The name of the Church of England's first female diocesan bishop has been announced. She is Rachel Treweek, currently Archdeacon of Hackney in London. She is to be the next Bishop of Gloucester.

Why is this so significant for the church, perhaps even more so than the hugely welcome appointments of the first two female bishops?  Why have I given this blog the dramatic title Crossing the Rubicon? Surely we have already crossed it by consecrating Libby Lane as the first woman in England to be ordained as a bishop?

Like a bishop suffragan, a diocesan bishop is consecrated to a senior leadership role in the church's ministry of word and sacrament, in mission, service, pastoral care and the teaching of the faith. But what marks out the diocesan bishop is that this role carries distinctive legal jurisdiction. It gives her leadership an authority in her diocese that belongs solely to her. She will of course share her episcope with her senior team in the diocese: her suffragan bishop, her dean, her archdeacons. But ultimately, the jurisdiction will belong uniquely to her.

And this is the rub. For as long as the church did not have a female diocesan bishop, the journey towards full equality in ministry with men was not complete. (Membership of the House of Lords is not the point here, though the special parliamentary provision fast-tracking the first female diocesan into the Upper House is also greatly to be welcomed.) But now, at last, we can say that this 'one more river to cross' has been successfully traversed.

Every diocesan bishop will tell you that it is an awesome responsibility to be a leader in the church in these demanding times. To be a bishop in the 21st century is not (in my view) at all an enviable vocation. Indeed, to be an effective leader in any organisation these days imposes great demands. 'Who is sufficient for these things?' we ask with St Paul. But diocesan bishops will also tell you that it is an enormous privilege to inhabit this role as a servant of the servants of God. It was high time that women were allowed to undertake it. Indeed, it ought never to have taken this long.

Of course, full equality will only be achieved in practice when there are comparable numbers of women and men in the episcopate. This will take many years, maybe decades. But for those like me who longed to see this day, and wondered if we would still be alive when it came, today's announcement is the best possible news.

I have written a number of blogs on the subject of female bishops. In one of them, I took as a metaphor the line embedded in the medieval Frosterley Marble floor by the font at the west end of Durham Cathedral. It marked the boundary which women were not allowed to cross in the days when the Cathedral Priory was a community of male Benedictine monks. They could watch, and listen, but they couldn't be full participants. I've often said that even into our own century, this has continued to be symbolically true for women in our church. The line began to be crossed with the ordination of women as deacons, then priests, then bishops.

But now, one woman has both her feet firmly to the east of the line. One more wall of division has been breached. The gospel that says that in Christ Jesus, we are all one people. Among the distinctions that once counted and must count no longer was that between male and female. Not now, in this new covenant society of grace into which Christ brings us. I think we should be allowed a Lenten alleluia.

So this is, I reckon, the last time I need to blog on this subject. It's a great day for the Church of England, for the women who serve in it so loyally, for Gloucester and, I'm sure, for Rachel and her family. We congratulate her with all our hearts, and promise her our prayers.


  1. You ask why the Media has not made much of this BIG story? Quite simply because Rachel Treweek is Number three, Alison White is Number two and Libby Lane was Number ONE. I don't think we can expect the secular Media to differentiate between Suffragan and Diocesan bishops. To them, a bishop is a bishop is a bishop and by the time we get to Number three, well, that's old news.