Church of England eyes will again be on General Synod as it meets later this month to consider the latest set of proposals designed to pave the way for the ordination of women as bishops. Last year a small minority of lay people prevented the measure going forward after it had been approved by the necessary two-thirds majorities in the Houses of bishops and clergy.
Since last year the Church of Ireland has appointed its first woman bishop, and the Church in Wales has voted to proceed with ordaining women to the episcopate. In Britain and Ireland, only the Church of England has yet to take the decisive step. There was so much profound anger and frustration after the last vote that I shudder to think what will happen if this month’s vote is also held back by the same few who are ideologically opposed in principle in many cases to the possibility of women bishops.
There is no point rehearsing the arguments yet again – they haven’t really changed in over a decade. But I want to look more broadly at issues of leadership and authority in the Church.
For one thing, will women bishops (when they finally arrive, as surely they must) actually change the Church of England? Leaving aside the justice and equality issue, that women should not be prevented from sharing in power and authority at the highest levels, will women bishops make the clerical profession less masculine, and bring benefits in terms of how leadership is exercised?
In recent decades the Church of England has evolved a particular kind of ‘pseudo-managerial’ bishop. Gone are the days when someone might be appointed because of their theological distinction (there are no front rank theologians amongst the bishops since the retirement of Rowan Williams), or because of their personal holiness and outstanding spiritual gifts, or on account of their prophetic witness to the radical reform of society. Instead there has emerged a ‘one size fits all’ model of a competent administrator with a safe pair of hands. Will women be content to allow themselves to become similar kinds of institutional clones?
The same kind of model, based on hierarchy, has made its way through to parish level. For all our talk of the importance of lay ministry, leadership and authority is still vested very largely in those who are clergy. A few lay people are trained to within an inch of ordination (such as Readers), and other specially authorised ministries with ever-changing labels proliferate, creating a further layer of those who are not quite clergy but not ordinary laity either. We are living with a system of how leadership and authority should be exercised in the church community which goes back a thousand years or more, and is no longer fit for purpose.
One analogy I like is that of the worshipping community as an orchestra. Each member has their own special contribution to bring to the whole work. Each has skills others don’t have. The orchestra needs a conductor, a priest, whose leadership and authority is to get the whole ensemble moving forward together. He or she isn’t a string player, or a wind player or a percussionist – others do those things better than him or her. But someone needs to co-ordinate, to channel the several contributions into an acceptable whole. That isn’t a hierarchical role. It’s lay and clergy functioning together. They do it not for their own sake but for the sake of a wider audience. Ministry is something everyone does for others (not waits to have done to or for them!).
We urgently need to break the mould of present ways of thinking. Women bishops might help us to do just that. But not if they become bishops ‘just like the boys’.