Bishop of Portsmouth on women’s equality in the Church of England and the distance still to travel

On 7th March 2019 the Government Minister Baroness Williams of Trafford led a debate in the House of Lords, “That this House takes note of International Women’s Day and the United Kingdom’s role in advancing gender equality globally.” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of PortsmouthMy Lords, I rise with some caution, conscious of the considerable risks as a man speaking on International Women’s Day. But dwelling in ambiguity is perhaps the lot of those occupying these Benches. I am acutely aware, for instance, that as a Lord spiritual speaking on defence matters, I interest myself in swords and in ploughshares.

It was sporting those two hats that I recently watched the RAF’s current recruitment advertisement. Its images depict the reality of women in a service in which every role is open to everyone. We see women readying themselves for combat, as engineers and pilots. The voiceover, alas, articulates a more familiar reality, in which women are told, predominantly by men, that their concerns centre on lip gloss, skincare and the contents of their wardrobe. The disparity between voice and image strikingly expresses the distance travelled, but also the many miles we have yet to traverse. I sensed some of this while listening to this week’s Questions and debates in your Lordships’ House. We have reflected this week on FGM, on consent, on pay and abuse, on how much has been done, on how much we want to do and on how much there is to do.

I cannot avoid reflecting that the same is true of the Church. Next Tuesday sees the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. The fruits of the hundreds of women who have followed their call are all around us, including in this House, with the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Gloucester, the Bishop of Newcastle, Bishop of Bristol and the Bishop of London sitting on these Benches—shortly to be joined by the Bishop of Derby.

We can look to the promise of the years to come. At Ripon College Cuddesdon, where I serve as chair of governors, half the academic staff are women. On Cuddesdon’s different pathways to ordination, we see a clear majority of women. The same is true of a subset of that group, the ordinands on my own diocese’s training programme, the Portsmouth Pathway. That pattern is replicated more widely.

And yet. Your Lordships might have noticed that I refrained from describing women in ordained ministry as “women priests”, nor would I describe female colleagues on these Benches as “women bishops”. That risks suggesting that there are priests and bishops—and then there are women priests and women bishops. No. There are priests and there are bishops, all of whom have been obedient to their call. Similarly on numbers, a majority in training does not translate into equality. We are decades from that. Even at that distant point, much will depend on who sits where.

Our culture, in the Church and in society, has some distance to travel before we can confidently say that we are inclusive. As one ordinand, Jo Winn-Smith, put it, equality happens only when men start doing what women do, not when women do what men do.

We have much about which we must be humble, perhaps even penitent. I wonder therefore whether this is a moment for celebration; it is rather more an occasion to mark, to take note.

I end with this thought. Christians, or more exactly theologians, are fond of the word “eschatology”. I risk the ire of those same theologians for grossly simplifying a complex notion, but we might say that eschatology is interested in progress towards the end time and anticipates that time—the time when all things are made new.


Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD): ..I particular loved the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, who said we are not to talk about female bishops because they are all bishops. It does not make any difference; they are bishops who happen to be women. I had already written down “female bishops”, then I quickly scrubbed it out. He talked about it not all being about women doing what men do. We had a lot of people talking about women in STEM and doing men’s occupations, but he rightly said that it is also about men doing what women do. When we are all doing a similar kind of job, using the talents we undoubtedly have, we will get a much fairer society.

Baroness Thornton:.. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth gave a most welcome address. I agree with him that all bishops are bishops and all vicars are vicars; our ranks have a recently ordained deacon…

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