Last week, there have followed two more women appointed into the roles of Bishops in the church of England. Following Libby Lane’s appointment as Suffrogan of Stockport, Alison White has been selected to be the Suffrogan of Hull, and perhaps more significantly, Rachael Treweek has been selected as the Diocesan Bishop of Gloucester. These appointments follow the decision to enable women to become Bishops last year.
In the Scottish Episcopal church, we agreed that women should be entitled to be elected Bishops back in 2003. In twelve years, there has been at least eight different opportunities for a women to be elected to the episcopate, and only one woman has made it to any of those eight shortlists.
The last time there was an episcopal election, there were cries of disappointment from many that there were no women on the shortlist. But there was a strong indication that no women had been nominated by anyone. If this is true, in a system where literally anyone from around the world can nominate a candidate for the episcopacy, this makes us all culpable.
I have often felt that as the piscy church we “talk a good game” about equality, but often our patterns of behaviour and our thought processes are unchanged from decades past. Why is it that Scotland and England are so different on this issue? Structure. Structure is the reason that Pheobe, Junia, Priscilla et al were powerful individuals, but not, in the end, influential. Structure was the thing that gave Theresa of Avila and Hildegaard their platform, and it also kept them from having influence beyond their permitted realms.
The way prophesy seems to work in the Bible is that a prophet, a lone voice, tends to convince someone in power of their case, and then those people in power repent, and their people repent with them. This is in a system where the King is in charge, and all (theoretically) do his will.
In a democratised culture and a global church there has been no single prophet, and no one King. But at least in the church of England, there have been leaders who have been prepared to repent of the church’s ignoring of the voices of women, and are implementing change.
In our own piscy church, the power lies in Synods, and Synods are places where people have power that they don’t know how to use. In such a pseudo-democratic system, the safe choice is often the most common, and in a system where women are vastly under-represented in the positions of power in the church hierarchy, it becomes difficult, impossible even for people to know what the right decision is.
It’s becoming embarrassing, thirteen years with only one women ever been shortlisted for election. So how can it change? How can the system, the structure change, so that women are at least a bit more equal with men?
As in any organisation where there is a gender imbalance, there is a choice between positive discrimination (which some people regard as unfair) and simply living with inequality. There is a reason why there are fewer women in business, in parliament, and in the church, and this is because, unlike most other employees who are subject to employment equality legislation, we don’t have any structural attempts at gender equality. There needs to be gender targets for all aspects of the work of the church, both lay and ordained. From the Mission and Ministry groups, to the College of Canons, people on Standing committee and in Synod. All it would take in the church would be a nudge, asking people to bear in mind the gender inequality we currently have. It would also mean that bishops would have to make gender equality a priority when they appoint people to positions of authority.
With respect to women bishops, the canon concerning the system of shortlisting bishops needs to change, so that those who are on the selection group are representative, and so that there is a requirement to have a gender balance in the candidates shortlisted. After twenty years of women priests, we can hardly claim there aren’t the candidates available, only that there is a certain lack of vision in the church in recognising them.
But most of all, there is a duty on those in any position of responsibility in the church and in the diocese to ensure that gender representation is front-of-mind in all aspects of how the church behaves. Even in a church level, it means a gender balance of who speaks and in what role in church, who serves on Vestry, who is in positions of responsibility.
That may sound fussy and logistically difficult, and there will come a time when it is no longer an issue – but that time will only come when we have taken the hard, fussy, and logistically difficult decisions for many years. Because as we have seen, equality doesn’t simply happen by one single vote. It happens by listening to the prophets, and changing the system accordingly.