In England, role of women debate continues

September 27, 2011

It was an honor to be invited by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to speak at the Transitions Conference, held at Lambeth Palace on Sept. 19. I offered the keynote address, bridging the theology and actual practice of women in the episcopate.

The Church of England continues to proceed toward having women in this order of ministry. While England has become accustomed to the ministry of women in the priesthood, it is understood that women in the episcopate will be a major culture shift in the exercise of the ministry itself and in the currently all-male House of Bishops. The matter is still hotly debated and a source of great institutional anxiety, particularly with the coming 2012 General Synod where measures and codes of practice regarding alternative oversight for those who cannot abide the authority of a female bishop will be debated.

The range of opinion of those opposed to female bishops stretches from seeing women in the episcopate as ending the potential for greater unity with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, to the illegitimacy of the headship of women, to those who are not opposed but wish to see some provision made for those who are. There is concern that while alternative oversight (that is, a female bishop delegating Episcopal ministry of a particular congregation to a male bishop) is likely to be legislated, conservatives may achieve a vote that allows a priest and congregation to have a separate bishop, avoiding the female diocesan altogether. It would appear that for them, this is a worthy restructuring of the historic understanding of episcopate and our diocesan structure of organization. One can only ask that, on the flip side, what would then prevent a female priest and her congregation from refusing the authority of a male bishop, based exclusively on his gender? Where might such particularity end?

In the Episcopal Church we approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate at one time, and, as I watch the Church of England continue to struggle around this matter, I am convinced this was a very wise move indeed. While doing so doubtlessly caused conflict initially, it immediately required us to live into the reality of the theological understanding we had reached regarding the presence of women in all orders of ministry and how we would live that out while trying not to exclude those for whom this was unacceptable. Consequently, we developed schemes for alternative oversight, now used not only for those opposed to women's ordination but also when the theological views (notably around human sexuality) between a priest and congregation and their bishop are so divergent that including another bishop in the relationship is the most fruitful way of continuing life and ministry together. The authority of the diocesan bishop, however, is not compromised or translated, but rather exercised through this arrangement.

The ability of diocesan bishops to work collaboratively with clergy and congregations without directive canons has worked well in our context. When parties are willing, it has given us the opportunity of discipline in the hard work of reconciliation, the bridging of divides and the actual practice of theology. My caution to the participants of the Transitions conference was a universal one, in the sense that when we the church legislate relational matters too strongly, we empower avoidance of reconciliation -- our primary ministry as church. It may initially seem the more effective way to calm the storms of conflict, but in fact, it can have the effect of institutionalizing the conflict itself.

We can look to our own conflict in recent years over human sexuality and see that our need to settle our differences in the court system may well have "legalized" our brokenness. We end up entrenching the distance and veracity between opposing viewpoints, subordinating the reconciliation of ourselves, one to another, and ultimately denying ourselves access to the infinite possibilities of God's grace in favor of problem solving.

Finally, while we have been ordaining women to the episcopate for over 20 years now, it is important to remember that great disparity still exists between men and women in ministry and in the wider culture, to say nothing of the experience of women around the globe. There is plenty of room to further live out our theology around the authority of women in all orders of ministry. In the ministry of the episcopate in the Episcopal Church (as with other high level occupations) there are still very few women relative to the total number of bishops. As much of the world still suffers from theological and cultural understandings which subordinate women in some way, just because we have ordained 17 women to the episcopate (number 18 happening in November!) does not reflect total enlightenment, but rather that we too have a long way to go in reconciling God's view of the equity between men and women and our lack of it.

May we pray not only for the Church of England at this critical time, but also ourselves, encouraging and supporting one another as we live more fully into God's justice and grace for all people.