Women bishops: rejection harms Church of England’s mission

One of the first women to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England bitterly regrets the General Synod’s vote against women bishops.

My 12-year old daughter suggested yesterday that I should go on strike. I was one of the first 1,000 or so women to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1994. There are now about 3,500 of us among the 11,000 or so priests serving in local communities as vicars, and in hospitals, hospices, schools, universities and prisons as chaplains. Yesterday the General Synod (our church’s governing body) voted by the very narrowest of margins not to proceed with legislation that would allow women to serve in this country as bishops.

Twenty years ago, when the Church of England voted to allow women to be ordained as priests, I spent the day sat on the steps of Church House, Westminster. On my train journey back to Sheffield that day (in my dog collar as a deacon) I was presented with a bunch of flowers by a well-wisher and embraced by any number of delighted commuters. 

This time — listening to the Archbishop of York announce the results on a live feed on my laptop — I wept alone in my room. I was not able to be at Tuesday’s debate in person. Somewhat ironically I am away on a residential training conference on ‘leadership’, paid for by my diocese.

Becoming a bishop is definitely not on my bucket list. But I had hoped soon to see some of my gifted and experienced women colleagues take their place alongside the men in the currently all-male House of Bishops. We need to see men and women working together, male and female made in the image of God and serving the loving, revolutionary, redemptive purposes of Jesus Christ in whom, the Bible tells us, “there is neither male nor female”.

There are already about 30 women bishops in different countries in the Anglican Communion, the worldwide church that grew out of the Church of England. The most recent to be consecrated is to serve in Swaziland.

Back in February I joined other supporters of women Bishops, in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, to pray for Synod’s decisions and hear a panel discussion at which two women bishops spoke. Geralyn Wolf has been Diocesan Bishop of Rhode Island, in the United States, for 16 years. Sue Moxley has been a Bishop in Nova Scotia, Canada, since 2003.

Bishop Moxley spoke powerfully of her calling from God as her colleagues in her diocese elected her to serve as their bishop. On hearing of her election her first job was to make contact with the very small number of churches and priests who would feel that they could not accept her ministry. She met and talked with people. She asked them what they would need to make this work for them. She allowed them to invite a male bishop to oversee them. Her only stipulations were that the visiting bishop should be an episcopal colleague from the Canadian church (not one flown in from another province) and that she should receive an invitation to visit the parish once a year, even if only for the church fete or for afternoon tea.

One of the reasons that we have tied ourselves in knots this week is that we have tried to make legal provision for the small minority of dissenting voices. My Canadian colleague shows how this can be done with grace and love and trust rather than legislation.

It is an honourable thing to seek to keep as many people on board as possible. But at what cost? One of my concerns is that all sorts of people have already jumped ship because of our failure to grasp this issue. Others wouldn’t dream of coming on board when we display such apparent institutionalised misogyny. The God I believe in, and whom I seek to serve, calls me and others to proclaim that women and men are equally loved and welcomed and valued as we reach out to the marginalised and vulnerable in our world and as we work for peace and reconciliation in the name of Jesus. This witness has been badly compromised by this week’s decision.

The overwhelming majority of the Church of England and of the General Synod (some 75 per cent) believe that this is the right moment to welcome some women in to the House of Bishops. I pray that in spite of this week’s setback we will soon see this happen. 

I have two images in my mind’s eye at the moment. In one we walk away with head bowed, drooping shoulders and tears in our eyes. In the other we walk back in to the fray taller, re-energised, angry, inspired, radicalised and re-committed. I am very clear which picture I would rather my daughter holds in her head and heart when she looks back at what her Mum was like.

About the author

The Revd Dr Jane Tillier is vicar of Barlaston, in North Staffordshire. She is an Honorary Prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral and the Diocesan Adviser for Women in Ministry.