Women in the Church: Bishop of Chester’s speech in Lords debate on International Women’s Day

The Bishop of Chester spoke during the International Women’s Day debate on the contribution of women in the economic life of the United Kingdom and worldwide. He updated the House on the progress being made by the Church of England to allow the consecration of women as bishops, and used the example of this process to examine the challenges faced by many women in the economy to be accepted in their own right. He also spoke of the role of women in the wider life of the church.

14.03 Bishop of ChesterThe Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the noble Baroness could well have said, “Bishops’ Benches: 26 men, no women”, but I am glad that she did not, although I am sure that others will. I rise with an appropriate hesitancy as the first male speaker in a debate in which only 22% of the speakers will be men. The majority of those listening are also women, which is a pity. However, I look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Palumbo, whom I can only describe as a fellow Daniel in the lion’s den on this occasion.

Indeed, those who inhabit these Benches might be seen as somewhat handicapped in advocating the fuller involvement of women in the wider life of our society. As we are regularly reminded, ours are the only Benches from which women are currently excluded. I hope that I can say something today about that and about the wider significance of the struggles of the church over the full involvement of women in its life.

I want to speak specifically about the Church of England only because that is, obviously, the organisation that I know best. Perhaps I may give the House an update on the gender-specific character of the Bishops’ Benches. The question for the Church of England in recent decades has not really been, “Should women be able to be bishops?”. That was settled quite a long time ago. The delay has been due to the questions over whether and how to accommodate those who do not wish to recognise and receive the sacramental and spiritual ministry of female bishops. Some Members of your Lordships’ House will perhaps think that such views simply should not be accommodated at all, and I can understand that feeling.

However, the reasons why the church has wrestled with the question of how to accommodate those who do not wish to accept the ministry of women bishops is twofold. The first is, quite simply, that we are a national church—a comprehensive church—in our self-understanding, and that leads to a deep instinct to keep on board as wide a range of people as possible. Deciding how that is done and how the limits are set is quite tricky for a national church.

Secondly, the great majority of Christians alive today belong to churches where women are not ordained: the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches and many of the more conservative Protestant churches. Therefore, looked at internationally, what is very much a minority opposition to ordained women and women bishops in the Church of England is actually a majority position in world Christianity. Those are the reasons why our discussions and processes have been rather drawn out, but there is now an agreed way forward and we are confident that final proposals will be before the Ecclesiastical Committee later this summer, with, we hope, final parliamentary approval before the end of the year.

The first women bishops should be appointed during next year, perhaps early next year. They will subsequently appear on these Benches, perhaps by some fast-tracking mechanism if that can be agreed through the parliamentary process. I began by setting this out partly to provide the House with up-to-date information on this matter and partly because the catalyst to the rapid progress which we are now seeing in the church has a wider relevance to today’s debate.

Until 2012, the Church of England had tried, for the first of the reasons I gave earlier, to accommodate opposition to the ordination of women by framing proposals which restricted the authority of women bishops in their dioceses on the face of the church’s legislation. This rightly elicited the criticism that in some sense the resultant women bishops would have a second-class character about them, with an authority which was restricted as compared with their male counterparts. For some, that was an acceptable compromise as a way to get the legislation through.

However, it failed in its purpose because a small but significant group of synod members who favoured opening the episcopate to women felt that the proposal lacked a certain inner integrity. I was among those and for that purpose I abstained in the vote in November 2012, when the legislation narrowly failed to achieve the necessary majorities. In the subsequent discussion, an honest assessment of what we were doing and where we are has produced the right conclusion in my view that the only way forward was a simpler proposal which opened the episcopate to women, essentially without any qualification. Such provision as may be made then for those who are not prepared to receive the ministry of a woman bishop would be made pastorally by the woman bishop herself under her proper authority, with guidelines from the House of Bishops to try to achieve a certain consistency across the Church of England.

My point is that it was when it was realised that there could be no reservation or disguised discrimination attached to women bishops that the log-jam suddenly cleared and the way forward appeared. The woman bishop will have in her diocese exactly the same authority and jurisdiction as her male colleagues. Really, we should have seen that much earlier, as I am sure many Members of your Lordships’ House will think. I think that that is why the process has ended up being rather drawn out. I suggest that in other areas of our national life, our economy, to define that word in its broadest context, will have seen parallel struggles for women to be accepted in their own right, with their own particular gifts and talents, rather than simply being expected to conform to the established ways and practices as laid down by decades or perhaps centuries of male dominance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, referred to that in relation to the other place. I am sure that other noble Lords will refer to that themselves. Speaking personally, I have two daughters who are both making their ways successfully through two of our leading professions, but there has always been the subtext that, “As long as you conform to a man’s world, we will give you every opportunity”. There is still quite a lot to be done sensitively to adapt our national life and professional life to the talented women whose gifts we so much need. Our experience in the church suggests that these issues ultimately need to be addressed head on, without too much compromise and the resultant disguised discrimination.

Let me conclude with some remarks about the wider contribution of women to the economy of the church; that is, the “household” of the church—the word “economy” in its original derivation means “household”. I would not want my earlier remarks about women bishops to be detached from the wider contribution that women make to the life of the church. Much of that is done on a voluntary basis and there is nothing wrong with that. Armies of people care for the parish churches of this land, which comprise nearly half our grade 1 listed buildings. There is all the cleaning and adornment of those buildings, and the wonderful skills of flower arrangers, which so often are neglected but actually adorn our churches.

I always remark on that each Sunday as I go around my diocese—although not while we are in Lent, but I shall look forward to doing that at Easter. Alongside that there is the wide range of pastoral work with women to the fore, including the gathering and distribution of food through food banks, which are now such an important, if ambiguous, feature of our society, and in which local churches and Christians are usually involved. I want to pay a deep tribute to all that work. Then there are the growing numbers of women priests, the first of whom were ordained just 20 years ago. We will have a splendid celebration this summer. Dare I say that I am contemplating ordering crates of pink champagne to distribute in my diocese?

Today, about a third of all licensed clergy in the Church of England are women—a figure that looks likely to rise steadily to a half on current patterns of ordination. The number who are in charge of parishes, incumbents, is the figure given by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, which is about 22% but rising steadily. I should add that more than half our licensed readers who assist the ordained ministry, preach and lead services are women. As we prepare for the consecration of women as bishops, perhaps the greatest challenge is to accept that through the progressive process of opening up the ministry of the Church to women, there has been, there is and there will be a progressive and deep transformation of the church and its ministry—the institution of the church in all its aspects.

There is an awareness of these issues and careful work is being done in advance of the first consecration to the episcopate to try to avoid inadvertent pressure for these women simply to conform to established male stereotypes. We must acknowledge that the pressure will subtly be there in all sorts of ways. “God forbid!”, your Lordships may say. Women have transformed the economy of the church in all its aspects and I am confident that in the years to come they will continue to do so.

 Baroness Thornton: …[extract] I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on giving us, as it were, an update on the position of women bishops. I certainly look forward to sharing a glass of pink champagne with him—that is probably the best offer of this debate, actually.

Baroness Northover:…. [extract] It is also good to have so many male contributions to the debate today, including from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, who flagged his optimism that we might soon see women on his Benches, possibly by the time of this debate next year.

(via Parliament.uk)

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