Women's ordination no longer a burning issue for most Anglicans

July 1, 1998

Ten years ago at the last Lambeth Conference the most threatening issue was women's ordination. Only a handful of provinces ordained women to the priesthood and none yet had taken the next step of ordaining women bishops. A decade later women's ordination is taking the back seat to sexuality as the hot button issue for the 1998 Lambeth.

A majority of the self-governing provinces of the Anglican Communion now ordain women priests and seven permit the ordination of women to the episcopate. For example, in South Africa, which has been ordaining women priests for five years, it is a non-issue, according to Bishop Duncan Buchanan of Johannesburg. Of the two bishops in the province adamantly opposed to women priests, one has retired and the other will follow suit after Lambeth, he said.

"On the whole it has been a huge and wonderful non-issue and I mean that in the best way. It is not that people have gone the same way, but that people have respected each other's point of view," Buchanan said. "Those of us who have ordained women to the priesthood have done so supported by an enormously loving brethren also in the episcopate who have disagreed with us."

Bishop Mark Dyer, retired bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem in the United States and currently professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, doesn't expect women's ordination to generate much debate at Lambeth either. Dyer, who served on the original Eames Commission charged with ensuring that provinces remained in communion with each other over the potentially schismatic issue, said the momentum is clearly moving toward more provinces ordaining women priests. The findings of the monitoring group following up the commission's work indicate that the matter has essentially disappeared off the radar screen, he noted. Not one mention of it as an issue has come before the Lambeth planning team.

Boycott threats over women bishops

These forecasts may prove true regarding women in the priesthood, but the debut of women bishops at Lambeth is already sparking protests.

A number of conservative bishops, while willing to accommodate if not ordain women to the priesthood in their dioceses, are still reticent to welcome their female counterparts. The presence of 11 female bishops at Lambeth--eight from the United States, two from Canada, and one from New Zealand--has prompted threats of boycott from nearly 50 bishops who are planning to hold a parallel meeting. Two expatriate Church of England bishops now serving dioceses of the Province of the Indian Ocean--Keith Benzies of Antsiranana and David Smith of Toamasina--have vowed to stay home entirely. Others, including Archbishop Moses Tay of the Church of Southeast Asia, have indicated that they will avoid participating in liturgies or Bible studies where female bishops are present.

Bishop Noel Jones of the Church of England's Diocese of Sodor and Man has said he will boycott any liturgy, Bible study or working group where female bishops are present, and will not pose for the official group photograph if female bishops are included.

American bishops affiliated with the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA) are taking a more measured approach.

Bishop Jack Iker of the Diocese of Fort Worth says he will participate "as fully as I possibly can," including attending services where women bishops are present. His only exception is sacramental functions, a position shared by most of his fellow ESA bishops.

None of the ESA bishops he has spoken with, said Iker, have indicated they intend to follow Jones' lead in refusing to process with women bishops or stand with them for the official photograph.

"If the ESA bishops are clear on anything it is that we will try to maintain the highest possible levels of communion which the Eames Commission recommends," said Iker. "But we are unable to participate in or receive from women priests or bishops any sacramental acts."

Jones' stand carries some weight in conservative circles since he is president of the International Bishops Conference on Faith and Order (ICBFO), a coalition of traditionalist bishops throughout the communion founded in 1991 by Iker's predecessor, Bishop Clarence Pope, joined by Bishop Eric Kemp of Chichester and Bishop Graham Leonard, former bishop of London who is now a Roman Catholic. The IBCFO bishops will meet on three evenings during the conference to discuss the issues and plan strategies to promote their views on women's ordination and sexuality.

The lobbying effort does not faze Dyer and others involved in the Eames report. As they see it any boycott or protest will be short-lived and unlikely to have significant impact outside the Lambeth Conference. The provinces that don't ordain women--in Asia, Africa and the South Pacific--are not drawing a line in the sand over this issue, they point out.

"There is no categorical 'no,'" Dyer said. When the secular culture can accommodate women in leadership positions, then the church will follow suit, he said.

Women bishops not looking for confrontation

As for the women bishops, they are focusing on making the most of the experience. For the eight women bishops of the Episcopal Church, Lambeth is about conversation and community building, not confrontation.

"Every one of us is intending to go into this conference as well prepared as we can be, to participate in our own sections, to enter into Bible study and conversations, to contribute what we can, and to learn what we can," said Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis. "We're all expecting that it will be a positive experience."

The threats of boycotts and disengagement have not put Waynick and her sister bishops on edge. Rejection isn't new for them. Since women were admitted to the priesthood 22 years ago they have had to deal with the validity of their orders being questioned.

"I think every one of us has developed some effective and safer ways of responding to that," said Waynick. "We will take those ways to Lambeth with us and trust that people willing to get to know us as persons and willing to grant us some measure of faithfulness in our own lives will see things differently."

The statements of Jones and other conservatives swearing off all contact with women bishops have not riled Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island either. "It's a choice they will make," she said. "While I am sorry we have divisions in the church, I am not overly concerned. It's more of a sorrow than a concern."

She notes that most ECUSA bishops attending have already spent time with women in the very settings Jones has chosen to boycott: Bible studies, workshops, small group discussions, and worship. "I realize their concern is that we are bishops, but these are non-sacramental acts. Obviously, they are making a statement other than the fact that they don't want to do Bible study with women," she said.

Wolf doesn't intend to let the walkouts and boycotts shape her Lambeth experience. She remains hopeful for the church, and looks forward "to learning a lot and having my mind stretched."

If the threatened boycotts are also meant as bait for the women bishops, they aren't biting. None of the women bishops are planning to openly challenge conservatives in the section discussions, demand to be a celebrant at the major Eucharists, or push for resolutions calling for communion-wide recognition of women bishops. Just being present is their most effective tool for winning respect and acceptance.

"The most important witness we can offer the world is not about whether we agree on issues but whether we are determined to love each other and to discover the Christ within us," said Waynick. "Those are the demands of the Gospel."

Two-thirds World leading the way

Ann Smith, coordinator the Office of Women in Mission and Ministry for the Episcopal Church, also sees that type of witness at work in provinces of the developing world where momentum is building for women's ordination. It is in these "Two-thirds World" provinces where the women's movement is at its strongest, said Smith.

A veteran of three United Nations conferences on women and a participant in the Women's Witnessing Community at the 1988 Lambeth, Smith is aware of the more daunting cultural and logistical hurdles faced by women of the southern hemisphere. Women of the Third World lack the education and communication network enjoyed by women in the United States, Canada and England, she pointed out, and are hobbled by institutional sexism.

"There are many cultures where to educate a woman is seen as a waste of time," Smith said. Even in matriarchal societies, women are at a disadvantage, she said. "All institutional power throughout the world is still maintained by the patriarchal system."

Given the cultural conditioning of those wielding authority in certain Two-thirds world churches, Smith acknowledges that greater acceptance of women priests and bishops will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. The open reception process created by the Eames Commission is an appropriate way to honor differing cultural perspectives, and one that the Episcopal Church followed for over 20 years, she said, from the 1976 decision to open all orders to women up to the General Convention vote last summer mandating the acceptance of women priests and candidates for ordination in all dioceses.

"I think women have been very, very patient," she said. "You can't bring about change quickly in the institutional church."

Smith hopes that the 11 women bishops will be fully integrated into the liturgies and discussions at Lambeth, and not treated as "freaks" in an ecclesiastical parade. The focus should not be on women's ordination as such, but on being in community and communion, and exploring how the gifts of women might enhance church vitality and growth.

Other issues occupy attention

For Two-thirds World bishops like Archbishop David Gitari of the Church of Kenya, women's ordination is no longer a burning issue. As former bishop of the Diocese of Kirinyaga, he ordained over 20 women to the priesthood, most of whom he believes "are doing a very fine job, even better than men." Having shown their skills as priests, women shouldn't be automatically barred from the episcopate, he said. "Some of those women may be so good that one day they will be elected bishops or archbishops."

For his province and other African churches, the more compelling issues are debt relief, human rights violations and the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Money from the Persian Gulf states is pouring into the pockets of Islamic groups in sub-Saharan Africa who are using it to build medical clinics, schools and mosques. Though Muslims make up just 10 percent of Kenya's population, their growth is outstripping the evangelism efforts of Christian churches, particularly in the north. Nearly every town in Kenya has a mosque built with money from the Gulf states, said Gitari.

Though lacking the financial resources of the Muslim community, the Anglican Church in Kenya has kept a high profile through its criticism of the heavy-handed policies of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. Such outspokenness has earned the church profound respect among pro-democracy forces, while incurring Moi's wrath. Last summer Kenyan security forces invaded All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi in pursuit of pro-democracy demonstrators. Gitari denounced the action and warned that Moi's days were numbered unless he supported constitutional reform. Gitari scored a partial victory when the government apologized for the trespass, but he is still waiting for Moi to make the constitutional changes giving all parties an equal standing in elections.

Speaking out on human rights

Despite threats from Moi, Gitari intends to follow the lead of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, retired archbishop of Cape Town, in serving as a voice for the oppressed. "If the government does what is right we shall praise it, but if it does what is wrong we shall criticize it fiercely. It doesn't matter whether it is Moi's government or any other government."

On the other side of the world Bishop Sergio Carranza-Gomez of the Diocese of Mexico is taking a more moderate approach to human rights issues in his nation. Neither his diocese nor the province has gone on record regarding the unrest in the southern state of Chiapas, though a few bishops have expressed misgivings about the government's attempts to quell the rebellion. The lack of an Anglican presence in Chiapas is one reason for the reticence, said Carranza-Gomez. Another is the uncertainty over who is responsible for the attacks on Indian villages.

"We feel we have to be careful with what we say or what we do because we might complicate things more by making statements without knowing first hand what is going on," he said.

Women's ordination is also a low-key issue for Mexico since the province's canons permit both women priests and bishops. In his diocese, which includes Mexico City, there are three female priests and a female deacon.

A more pressing concern for him and his fellow bishops is the fragile state of unit among the five Mexican dioceses. The transition from a province of the Episcopal Church in the United States to an independent Anglican Church a few years ago was too abrupt, said Carranza-Gomez. Financially the dioceses were not ready for autonomy, he said, nor were their members prepared to shoulder the responsibilities for governing the new church and carrying out ministries like evangelism.

"There is not a sense even now of one body and one church, one national church. And nobody feels responsible to anybody," he said.

Inter-diocesan relations are weak. The primate, Bishop Jose Saucedo, exercises little influence with his fellow bishops, said Carranza-Gomez, citing the example of two bishops who deposed priests without benefit of an ecclesiastical trial and despite protests by other bishops and the primate.

It is this kind of insularity and factionalism that the primates and Lambeth Conference must be on guard against, he said. The communion needs "a more acute sense of belonging to a family, of sharing many things."

Keeping the conference balanced

Achieving that level of accountability and interdependence won't be easy given the influence wielded by the northern hemisphere churches at previous Lambeths. Greater financial resources and the sheer number of bishops in the United States and England have weighted the deliberations toward their concerns.

In 1988 this imbalance brought a protest from African bishops who successfully lobbied for a special agenda on evangelism. During the past 10 years, the archbishop of Canterbury and the other primates have listened carefully to the concerns of the Two-thirds World and tried to incorporate their priorities into the four main Lambeth themes (Called to Full Humanity, Called to Live and Proclaim the Good News, Called to be Faithful in a Plural World, Called to be One). As a result, international debt and debt relief will be occupying the marquee at this summer's Lambeth.

Promoting a Two-thirds World issue, though, is not the same thing as filling a discussion with Two-thirds World voices. Northern hemisphere bishops may still monopolize the discussion or advance their own pet issues.

That is a concern for Buchanan who notes that the Episcopal Church will be sending over 200 bishops to Lambeth this year, a quarter of the total attendance. By comparison, his Province of Southern Africa will be represented by just 32 bishops. The impression among the two-thirds world bishops, he said, is that their American counterparts "can say what they like, do what they like and expect [the conference] to do whatever they believe is important."

The expectation of many Two-thirds world bishops, he added, is that they will be "patronized by the United States and England particularly."

The northern hemisphere bishops could take a page from the journals of the Episcopal Church's Council of Women Ministries, said Smith. At the 1995 United Nations-sponsored women's conference in Beijing the African women told their North American partners to keep their tongues in check. The result, said Smith, was that it was "a truly international event. No one dominated."

U.S. bishops need "to sit back and learn from the southern part of the world," she said. "Our country causes a lot of the problems they are dealing with, and they are dealing with them in a much more holistic way than we know how to do."

Ian Douglas, director of Anglican Global Ecumenical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts, agrees. "We need a new appreciation of the radical calling of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the world. Our brothers and sisters who live as victims can help us take the log out of our eyes."