Why women priests but not bishops?

The Church of England has decided the top jobs in the Anglican Church are strictly reserved for “the boys”.

The Church of England''s Synod Vote On Women Bishops
The Church of England's General Synod voted against allowing women to be ordained as bishops [GALLO/GETTY]

The final decision was somewhat unexpected. It is of course painstakingly evident women are still confined to their traditional roles, such as dutifully serving tea and biscuits after service, flower arranging and typing out the weekly newsletter. However, slowly but surely, since the first women priests were ordained in 1994, much needed vitality and vigour has swept through the Church of England. Women now make up a third of the Anglican clergy in England and latest figures [PDF] show more women than men are now being ordained. According to the Church of England, “the number of women clergy, stipendiary and non-stipendiary, continues to rise”.

It could not be anymore ironic then that the head of the Church of England is the most powerful woman in England: The Queen. The Sovereign holds the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. However, the very church Her Majesty is in charge of does not want women to be consecrated to the office of bishop. These top jobs are, it seems, strictly reserved for “the boys”.

A conflicting Church of England

Zoe Ham is from the Church Society and is grateful the measure before the Synod [PDF], allowing women to serve as bishops, didn’t become lawful:

“I believe that God teaches us in the Bible that men and women are completely equal in value and dignity (both made in the image of God, both can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ) but different in the roles God has given them to play in the home and the church. I believe that men are to sacrificially lead as the head and that women are to lovingly submit, that’s why I love playing out my role as a woman in the church.”

But what about women priests in the Church of England? Two decades since women were ordained, where is the rationale that the Church of England embraces women as priests but not as bishops? There is a huge sense of hypocrisy that women are lucky and “competent enough” to join the “priesthood” but “not competent enough” to be admitted to the episcopate.

I put these arguments to Zoe, and she went on to explain that she is one of many in the church who did oppose and still does oppose women being ordained as priests:  

“When women were allowed to become priests, the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 was passed by the General Synod, to make provisions for the continuing diversity of opinion in the Church of England as to the ordination and ministry of women as priests, and for related matters. Churches can choose whether or not to have women priests. I don’t believe women should be able to lead or preach or have authority over a man. It is our role to submit to men and this is clearly stated in the bible. We see this played out in church where all teaching of men or the mixed congregation is undertaken by males.”

Indeed, Paul’s teachings in his letters , 1 Timothy 2:1 instructs: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

The Stream
A-men only

However, the distinct lack of consistency is extremely confusing for those in and outside the church. The Scriptural Teachings have not been dutifully followed by the Church of England. If they had, the ordination of women into (the then all male) priesthood would not have happened. Instead it was passed with “get out clauses” in the form of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 to appease those in the clergy and conservative evangelicals, whose theology refuses to be swayed.

This has sadly resulted in a church dangerously divided by those repelled by misogyny and those glaringly guilty of it. The latter make no apologies for refusing to welcome females as priests into their parishes and stereotype women to the mundane tasks such as “serving and supporting” the higher species that is, of course, man.

This dissension is also achingly apparent in the Church of England’s hierarchical structure. Speaking to a number of male priests (who requested not to be identified) after the hearing in front of the General Synod, many expressed deep unhappiness that their leader, outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, “went against and refused to support” what the vast majority of the clergy in England really want. This, according to them and many others, is no women ordained to the priestly ministry and certainly no women consecrated to the office of bishop.

However, no priest who is insistent on an only male priesthood was able to give a sound, sufficient reason for not following and preaching Galatians 3:28, which states, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ.” 

Feminist followings

This exhaustive struggle for recognition can actually be traced back as far as the time of the suffragettes. As cited in the Lambeth conference archive in 1920, “The Position of Women in the Councils and Ministrations of the Church”, there were nine motions (46-54) put forward. Resolution 47 proposes: “The time has come when, in the interests of the Church at large, and in particular of the development of the ministry of women, the diaconate of women should be restored formally and canonically.” Resolution 53 urges: “Opportunity should be given to women as to men (duly qualified and approved by the bishop) to speak in consecrated or unconsecrated buildings, and to lead in prayer, at other than the regular and appointed services of the Church.”

In 1976, a report by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “Can Women Be Priests?“, concluded there were no scriptural objections to the priestly ordination of women.

I asked Zoe Ham from the Church Society how her fellow sisters in the church are coping. Many women priests were overcome with emotion, wiping away tears in the public gallery in the assembly hall of Church House after the legislation was rejected. We also discussed feminism and what impact the decision will have on women, their rights and choices on a wider scale.

“I am very pro women. I’m passionate about women being involved in ministry and am very excited about that. However, the Bible is very clear about the different roles that are laid out for women and for men and we submit to the heavenly father and must follow and preach his word. It was upsetting to see so many women priests so distraught and I pray for them. I also have many female friends that do not feel the same way as I do and yes it is difficult at times. All I can do though is pray for them, ask for guidance and continue to love them in the same way as I know they do me.”

There is no theological justification for not having women bishops. What is the Church afraid of, that women will become too powerful and heaven forbid become better leaders than men? The fact that men and churches can choose not to be preached to and led by women is not only obviously draconian and dangerously dismissive, but illustrates patriarchal religions are not worthy enough to be entrusted with teaching young women. What will they learn? That women should “know their place” and only go so far regardless of their achievements and aspirations. That women are inferior to men and that men in the church are leaders, not because of ability, knowledge, values or ethos I hasten to add, but simply because of gender.

Women have been embraced and welcomed to the episcopate in New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada. Earlier this month, Swaziland appointed Africa’s first female Anglican Bishop, the Right Reverend Ellinah Wamukoya. Swaziland, a country determined to push ahead with change where women for centuries have been classified and are still legally regarded as minors, have limited property rights and are forced into a subordinate existence where powerful patriarchy is the norm.

Writing on the consecration of Bishop Ellinah, The Most Revered Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town summed it up perfectly:

“The thunder is rumbling as I write: We have witnessed a great occasion, and now it does indeed seem that the heavens are about to fall upon us – the falling of rain, which this country and its people so desperately need. So now, we have taken this step, and we wish the Church of England ‘God speed’ as they deliberate. We feel all the more enriched by today, because by virtue of our baptism we are called to join in anything and everything that God is doing in his world – and we have felt his leading and responded to his call.”

Will the Church of England decide to respond to their call, cried out by many inside and outside the church who can do nothing except watch, hope and pray?

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.