Last night’s news announced that the Church of England General Synod had voted against woman becoming Bishops, and this morning as I surveyed the Facebook and Twitter comments of a variety of friends and colleagues there has been a sense of sadness at a missed opportunity, but also frustration for those whose call to ministry has been given a boundary. Amongst that sadness, there has also been comment about the “old boys club” clinging onto their last vestiges of power, and I have spent the morning wondering about that (while also trying to be the minister I’m supposed to be today.) So in the five minutes before I sit down to lunch, I though I’d unload my head. There is no guarantee that this will make sense, or have a conclusion – and in fact I wonder if in leaving my thoughts here, I might revisit this myself as I continue thoughts.
It is quite difficult to comment on another church’s ways of working and coming to a decision, as most of us are quite entrenched within our own traditions and decision making processes. I come from a church that does not have Bishops, and supposedly all ministers are considered equal. Yet I know and understand that even within my own church tradition, there has been a feeling of a “Stained Glass Ceiling”. While I have that knowledge, I’m also aware that that has not been my pervading experience of the church, and for those of you who do know who I am and where I am, I suspect that I am a sign of the changing church of which I continue to be part.
Today I’m not entirely convinced of the notion of an “old boys network” stopping women from invading the hierarchies of the Church of England, instead I want to suggest that often the biggest opponents to this kind of change are women themselves. Recent television news reports had primarily shown women as being the biggest opponents to women in leadership roles within the church. Having watched and listened to the news yesterday, I had a wee look at the recent minutes of the House of Laity freely available on the Church of England website, and while not an over-riding indicator of the make up of the House, recent debates (particularly around the possibility of women Bishops) indicate that many of the voices against are in fact those of women.
In my experience of ministry, on a few occasions I have found those who have felt most uncomfortable with women in the ministry have tended to be women. It’s something that has often amused me as I had never really encountered discrimination on the grounds of my gender until I went to work in a Bank. From a predominantly female family, we have been encouraged to be whatever we might want to be. For me the Bank was a passing phase, and perhaps the discrimination that I encountered in that place was the impetus that pushed me into reviewing life and applying for university.
While training there were often those who raised the issue of my gender, and for the most part we agreed to disagree as my key indicators of the role of women in the life of church are Gospel references, where Jesus highlights women and gives them a place in society – where their texts tended to focus on Paul, and letters written to specific situations. (Oh, did you spot my bias there.) However I know that also my general belief that pervades is that I am not called because I am a woman, but because of the gifts I display. That is my underlying belief in all that we are asked to do by God – that we are asked to do the tasks we do because of the gifts we exhibit rather than because one is male or female.
If our understanding of God is that we are all made in His image, then our understanding also has to acknowledge that God has both male and female within. And while I use a masculine pronoun for describing God, I do so because of historical bias and training.
What I have found amusing about opposition to women in leadership within the church, is that often those who oppose hold fairly influential roles within their own lives and churches. You cannot have a position on the House of Laity unless you play an active role within the life of a congregation, and in playing that active role you will be offering some form of leadership – although it won’t necessarily be termed ministry.
It’s very difficult in this debate about the role of women in the church to not stab at the lifestyles of others. I will be castigated for not giving full attention to my husband, children and the house – and I do not want to undervalue the role of those who do choose to form themselves as “professional women” and give themselves over to being the mainstay of the family and home life – for do not kid yourself that that is not some form of leadership.
How do we as women learn to value the variety of gifts and skills that we exhibit? My role of leadership should not undervalue the role of those who choose to focus their role around their family – instead they should equally be able to complement. I long ago acknowledged that I would find being a stay at home parent very difficult, as I do not have that patience. Yet I think that those who choose that role are to be admired for they offer gifts beyond their homes in the skills they offer free of charge in other places.
So just to show that I don’t judge Paul too harshly, I’ll use the well-worn quote…
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3: 28)
We may quote it. We may love it. But have we allowed it to sit fully in our hearts and challenge them, that we recognise that all gifts of God are precious?