Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

Revving up

The C of E’s pioneer women priests are waiting anxiously for their first female bishop

Revving up
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The C of E’s pioneer women priests are waiting anxiously for their first female bishop

Diocese by diocese, the Church of England is voting in favour of women becoming bishops. Last week Truro, Norwich, Blackburn, Rochester, St Albans, Wakefield and Winchester gave their ‘yes’ vote to the draft legislation, bringing the total to 29 dioceses out of 44 in favour, well over the 50 per cent mark needed to allow it to go back to the General Synod for final approval next year. So far only two dioceses have voted against: Chichester and London. And even London (a notoriously prickly diocese on this issue) very nearly voted in favour. House of Bishops: two in favour (Kensington and Stepney), one against (Edmonton) and one abstention (the Bishop of London himself). House of Clergy: 39 in favour, 41 against. House of Laity: 45 in favour, 37 against. So (requiring a majority in all three Houses) the outcome came down to two clergy votes. In Chichester the vote was similarly close — except that both its bishops voted against.

For women priests, following all this is as gripping as watching the swingometer on election night. Dotted and isolated across the Diocese of London, the pioneer female reverends, though dismayed by their own diocese’s result, have been quietly delighted to discover that all over England, from Truro to Carlisle, the vast majority of clergy and laity are coming out in favour of what seems to them the obvious and proper next step. The current situation seems to them a theological nonsense.

‘I wish we’d done it all at once like the Province of Sudan,’ the Revd Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s Piccadilly, told me. ‘There, it was all decided in one night. One quite long night, mind you. They voted that women could be ordained deacon, priest and bishop. Whereas here, women were voted to be ordained deacons in 1987, priests in 1994, and bishops — still not.’ For that to come to pass, there needs to be a two-thirds majority in all three houses at next July’s General Synod. If that doesn’t happen, the whole process will go into abeyance for five years.

The metaphor of watching paint dry comes to mind, if you really imagine what it must be like for these women to see the whole sluggish process grinding on for decades. If they were ordained in the new dawn of 1994, their hair has started to go grey and wrinkles have formed round the eyes. It’s not that they’re itching to be bishops themselves. They’re really and truly not. All the women I spoke to hate it when journalists say, “She’s tipped to be a bishop.” It’s just that, as Rosemary Lain-Priestley, the Dean of Women’s Ministry in central London, put it to me, ‘When the Church says to women, “You can’t occupy a senior role”, it’s putting a question mark over the whole ordination of women.’

To those opposed to the ordination of women at all, let alone to the episcopate, the process seems to be going much too fast. Only 17 years out of 2,000: slow down! At the High Church end, the objection is mainly the ‘ecumenical’ argument: the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches aren’t even considering ordaining women yet. We should not break away even further from these churches just in order to keep up with ‘fashion’. At the Low, evangelical end, the objection is mainly biblical. ‘Jesus only chose male disciples, women are essentially assistants, not leaders’, etc. To which Lucy Winkett replies, ‘Not even conservative evangelicals are living in complete accordance with the Bible.’ To demonstrate this, she told me, a woman in Dayton, Ohio recently chose to live for 12 months exactly as the Bible said women should live. She refused to touch her husband while menstruating and carried a cushion around so as not to sully the chairs (Leviticus), didn’t cut her hair for a year (1 Corinthians), and stood on the highway in front of the ‘Welcome to Dayton’ sign with a poster saying ‘Dan is Awesome’. (A virtuous woman’s husband ‘is respected at the city gates’. Proverbs, xxxi 23.)

The Diocese of London has always been polarised in its churches: it contains the very highest of the High and the most bible-bashing of the Low. The women priests live sandwiched between these two extremes. And there are precious few of them: only 18 per cent of London’s clergy are female. Rosemary Lain-Priestley’s aim is to get this figure up to one third. In my deanery, Hammersmith and Fulham, out of 35 reverends, there is only one stipendiary woman priest, and three non-stipendiaries. Two of these, the Revd Penny Seabrook and the Revd Eileen McGregor, are at All Saints, Fulham, which is on the Thames just across the river from the far more woman-friendly Diocese of Southwark. ‘It was a real culture shock coming from Southwark to this diocese,’ Penny Seabrook said. But both women have been heartened by countless occasions of parishioners and other clergy changing their minds from ‘against’ to ‘for’ women’s ordination, simply by seeing them at work. And they’ve never come across anyone changing their minds in the opposite direction.

This, say Lucy Winkett and Rosemary Lain-Priestley, is the key: to work together with those you disagree with. ‘Sometimes strong relationships can be forged on the anvil of profound disagreement,’ Lucy said. And she speaks from experience. For six years she worked as Canon Precentor at St Paul’s Cathedral, side by side with the Canon Treasurer Martin Warner (now the Bishop of Whitby), who was against the ordination of women and would not receive Communion from her. ‘It was difficult but we faced it. I didn’t pretend I thought he was right; he didn’t pretend he thought I was right; but that didn’t prevent us from trying to find the greatest degree of unity possible. Now we’re good friends.’

It’s because of this belief in working together with those you disagree with that the women I spoke to dread one thing in particular. They are happy enough for special provision to be made for parishes opposed to women bishops: a male bishop would be made available to such parishes. But it’s the way this male bishop would be appointed that matters to them. The question is: should the male bishop be appointed by the (woman) bishop? For the more extreme ‘antis’, this is not acceptable. The very fact of being appointed by a woman’s authority would ‘taint’ the arrangement. They would require the male bishop to be appointed separately, without the woman bishop having anything to do with it.

‘That arrangement would mean,’ Rosemary Lain-Priestley said to me, ‘that we could have a Church where parishes don’t have to have anything to do with people they disagree with; where people could pretend the decision in favour of women bishops hadn’t been made.’ The women priests I spoke to would prefer the vote not to go through at all than to be carried at this price.