Why Scotland has no female Bishops.

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.

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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12 Responses to Why Scotland has no female Bishops.

  1. delighted to read this, Pip, and well done for writing it. The lone candidate, when nominated, was not selected – so it is not only the nomination process which needs a nudge, it is also the positive benefits of a woman as Bishop which need to be discussed… In just exactly the same way that the entire discussion concerning women priests was discussed throughout the SEC, so it should be that each congregation has an actual discussion…that, as we saw, changes things.

  2. revruth says:

    Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, Pip, I might just add that the few women I’ve spoken to about this have said they wouldn’t want the job of Bishop. In fact, they can’t imagine anything worse! There’s something about the role which smacks of ambition, the greasy pole of hierarchy which some women are just not in to. (And I know some men feel the same.) So perhaps some women have been approached but have chosen not to stand for many reasons.

    That said, I would dearly love to see women in positions of authority in our SEC, chairing committees, and on Chapter (and not just by virtue of their job), and in any post which those on the Standing Committee get to fill themselves because nobody put themselves forward. And as Bishop of course.

    • frpip says:

      Ruth I think you’re right. I’d certainly go along with a sense of revulsion at the idea of being a Bishop. I think the job is such a terrible one that the only appeal that I can see (I may be wrong) is either a sense of self-abnigating-sacricice, or a sense of status, neither of which are very healthy. But there can be no doubt that having women priests has released men into being different from the Victorian pater-famillias which the priesthood used to be in our church. Without women priests as both mentors and companions, I would not be able to be the priest I am, and I doubt evry uch whether I would be able to be the father and husband that I am. I would hope women Bishops might do the same in the role of enriching the whole of the college of Bishops, rather than them just trying to squeeze themselves into a male role.

  3. Pip – If it is the case that at a particular election no women were nominated, I can’t see how that can be in the public domain. All we get to know is the short list, not the nominations.

    I’m aware stories of a number of women being nominated and also aware of one of two female candidates who have themselves withdrawn from the process before a short list was announced. However, I’m not aware of that through any formal process.

    I’m not in favour of gender balanced shortlists myself. I think the only criterion that those responsible for short lists can really have before them is the possibility that a particular candidate might be the person with the best skills for the job at hand.

    I also don’t think that having women doing the job ois likely to change the way bishopping is done. (Libby Lane’s recent disastrous interview in the Guardian is a good example of why it won’t). That’s not to say that the office of bishop should not be reformed and I do think we need to look again at Canon 4.

    I often remind people at this point in these conversations that by some distance the worst bullies I’ve known in the church have tended to be women. None of that has altered by own commitment to equal opportunities but it has made me very wary of claims that ordaining women will make much difference to the structures themselves.

    • frpip says:

      Hi Kelvin

      The “no women being nominated” issue may have been rumour rather than fact, so I may be wrong about that, but unless my memory cheats, it was mentioned in a non-confidential meeting as being the case.

      I think the idea of the group drawing up a shortlist, with the sole question “who would be best to do the job” presupposes that the job is defined and understood. I don’t think this is theologically the case, but is often culturally so. I think the advantage of gender balanced shortlists would enable the question of “What is the job we are asking them to do” to be aired in a more productive way. In this way, I think having women both on the short list, and as Bishops, would in fact enrich the way our Bishops are.

      You’re right that the first indications of Libby Lane’s interview is that she has been put into a very traditional role, and is trying to fulfil it – how easy or difficult that is for her I have no idea. I notice that the CVs of the three female Bishops demonstrate quite a standard path – Archdeacon, theological training, PhD etc. I think the group which draws up the shortlist is very important for that reason. If it consists of folk who are very comfortable with the traditional clergy CV, I think it will always be biased against women whose journey to ordination has often been very different.

  4. perhaps we’ve become more used to the CofE system now, but the Bishops we have [there are 2 Suffragan and 1 Diocesan here] are excellent pastorally, and have worked enormously hard to be present in all churches regularly – one is cycling throughout Lent to reach the Services he is taking [some painfully early starts required!] – and are extremely good Diaconally. This wouldn’t be universally true – but it is an idea of what a Bishop’s role can be, and why it isn’t to be dreaded

  5. I have never been concerned that Scotland doesn’t yet have a bishop who is a woman, and trust that it will happen when the right candidate appears, but I love, LOVE, this sentence:

    “Synods are places where people have power that they don’t know how to use.”

  6. Which other categories would you advocate using positive discrimination for, Pip?

    Out gay men? (As opposed to closeted ones)
    Members of ethnic minorities?
    I know plenty about discrimination against out gay men in our church but it was not until I worked with a Nigerian colleague that I even started to think about issues around race in our church and there’s a lot to think about.
    So, which other groups would you consider needing an assured place on a short-list?

    • frpip says:

      I think there’s a statistical difference between the groups you mentioned, and a group of people who constitute more than 50% of the laity, and more than a third of the clergy in the SEC. I think we can be as pro-active as possible in finding ways of ensuring that all minority groups are better represented, but that doesnt’ mean there’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

      I think there are probably better ways of using positive discrimination in other groups – but it sure as hell should worry us that there are huge portions of society that are vastly under-represented in the church, and not just those you mentioned. The lack of anyone in a significant position of status or authority in the church under forty worries me as much as anything because it implies a hierarchy based on accrued knowledge, rather than being spirit-filled and fresh for the job. It also implies those church based jobs are to do with status, which we really need to knock on the head.

      • At times there has been near parity between ordained out gay men in this diocese and ordained women. The out gay men face direct rather than indirect discrimination from the institution. I still don’t really understand why you favour positive discrimination of one category rather than another.

  7. Personally, I’d start with a rule that the Single Transferable Vote system (or the Alternative Vote if there’s just one post) is used for all elections at Diocesan Synods. First past the post for positions where there’s four candidates, say, for one position is absurd with a small electorate. Also it would allow people to cast their votes according to the preferences that they themselves care about.

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