Monday, 26 January 2015

Women in the Episcopate - almost there!

This is a great day for the Church of England and for Anglicans across the world. Today, the Reverend Libby Lane is consecrated in York, the first woman to be ordained bishop in the Church of England. A large crowd will be gathering at the Minster as I write. So with millions of others, believers and well-wishers, I want to offer congratulations and prayers. Every pioneer has the privilege of becoming a name in the history books. It is quite something for the Church of England to have arrived at this point after such a long journey.

I've blogged before about how, on the night before I was ordained my Bishop sat me down and said: 'Michael, you do realise, don't you, that this year the General Synod has agreed that there are no theological objections to the ordination of women? This is the position of the church in which tomorrow you become a public minister. If you don't like the idea of female priests and bishops, now is the time to step back.' That was in 1975. It has taken 40 years for a woman to become a bishop in England. Exactly the time it took the Hebrews to enter the promised land. And as in that story, not without many ordeals on the way. Libby is privileged to be the 'first'.

But it will also be a burden she has to carry. She will be under intense scrutiny from all sides, and not just within the church. People will be watching her to see how she inhabits the role of a bishop, what dimension her womanhood adds to the episcopate, how she holds on to her sense of female self in a hierarchy that will still be overwhelmingly male for years to come. We all want her to flourish and are sure that she will make an excellent bishop. If we had any doubts, they were laid to rest by the testimony paid by her charming curate on TV today. When a curate speaks well of their vicar, always believe them! And I hope and believe that even those opposed to idea of female bishops wish her well and with the rest of us hold her in their prayers.

I've added almost there to the title of this blog. Why is today not yet the end of the journey? For three reasons.

The first is simply a matter of time. Only when there are roughly as many women as men among the bishops will we be able to say that equality has been achieved. It will come, though the gender balance of the House of Commons suggests that it may take longer than we would like.

The second reason is more intractable. It's a great pity that Libby's consecration has been coloured by the debate, not all of it good tempered, about the consecration of a traditionalist bishop in a few days' time. The Archbishop of York has requested those bishops who are present at that service and who have themselves ordained women to exercise 'gracious restraint' in not laying hands on a man who does not endorse female ordination. The Archbishop includes himself in this. That isn't my theme today, so I won't say more now other than to regret that divisions that get acted out ritually in the worship of the church cast a real shadow over what should be a joyous celebration. There may be bishops attending today's service in the Minster who will not lay hands on Libby. We remain a broken and divided communion.

My third reason is about the role Libby will take up. She will be the first female bishop, yes, but as suffragan to the Bishop of Chester she will not have in her own right the authority he holds as Diocesan. The media haven't cottoned on to a key aspect of the debate about female bishops which is that it's not simply about exercising a bishop's ceremonial, teaching and pastoral roles. It is very much about jurisdiction in the church. Only a diocesan bishop has this: some theologians believe that the bishop's crozier is a symbol not only of the pastoral office as a shepherd, but also - perhaps especially - of jurisdiction over a diocese. A woman does not yet have episcopal jurisdiction in the Church of England (other than what is delegated to a suffragan by a diocesan). This will come when the first woman is ordained to be a diocesan bishop. No doubt this will happen very soon, maybe in the next few months. When it does, I hope the media will pay attention because that will also be truly ground-breaking.


  1. Ordaining women? What a clever idea. I wonder why Christ never thought of it.

  2. Neither did it occur to him to appoint as disciples any men who were not circumcised, Ergo, all clergy should be Jewish?

  3. Dear Decanus Borealis, I think St. Paul took us beyond arguments concerning circumcision. The Sub Decanus Borealis alludes to this in his splendid sermon on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, although there appears to be some confusion between baptism and ordination in what he said. Nevertheless, a first rate address.