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What difference does women’s ministry make?

23 November 2012

The episcopate needs to reflect the whole of humanity, so that the Church can grow, argues Frances Ward

WHILE the General Synod voted on women in the episcopate on Tuesday, in Bury St Edmunds it was the feast day of St Edmund, King and Martyr. In 870, he stood firm in the face of Viking insistence that he renounce his Christian faith or die. To be the Dean of this wonderful place and people is a privilege. To be a female dean brings an interesting set of reflections on women in leadership. I often wonder whether gender makes that much difference.

Am I more compassionate, more in touch with my emotions? Am I a multi-tasker, to leave the men standing? It is difficult to say. I do know that there is more pressure not to fail; so I probably try harder. And I know it helps to dress well. "If she wears lace skirts like that, she'll be fine!" was a comment heard after my first Friends' AGM.

The biggest battles are internal, mainly against self-doubt; so stepping up to authority does not come naturally. I tend not to seek the floor unless I have to; but now I have to, and so I do. Coping with other people's expectations is another thing, but mostly that works favourably.

IT is particularly good to see other women flourish, and to see women and girls grow in confidence when they see me up front. That matters. People's ideas of what it means to grow as a human being in Christ change when they experience my presiding and preaching - or so they tell me.

That is the heart of my ministry, rooted in Christ. So it is more important than anything that I preach with imagination, intellectual rigour, and thoughtfulness: that I preside with dignity and reverence, mindful that true authority is not mine, but Christ's.

On that basis, the culture of the cathedral grows. That is what leaders do: they create the corporate culture of an institution. In this setting, it is impossible not to be aware of tradition. Tradition is what shapes us, in the present, but also for the future - as we respond to how God calls us through the ages.

The Church of England is on a journey towards welcoming women into the episcopate. I understand the deep anxiety that besets it: I, too, count myself a traditionalist, wanting sacramental assurance. I believe that the real presence of Christ is guaranteed in the sacraments, as we look back with an unbroken apostolic succession through the Reformation to deep roots as the one, holy, apostolic Church.

We also need to have confidence, though, in the particular grace that God has given us as this Anglican part of the true Church. We cannot keep looking over our shoulders at the Roman Catholics or the Orthodox, anxiously wondering whether we are the "real" Church. If we are not, then no orders count, however "traditionalist" we are.

THE Church is not our creation: it is the means of God's grace: the sacraments are dependent on the real presence of Christ - not on the worthiness, or the gender, of the priest.

So what is it that makes us Anglican rather than Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Presbyterian? Well, we understand authority and make decisions differently. We have developed through the centuries, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as a Church governed by bishops and synods.

When decisions are made by these bodies, we need to respect and obey them. Sometimes we like the way things go; sometimes we don't. But we knuckle down, and get on with what God requires of us, whether we are ordained, lay, male, or female.

There is an enormous task before us. For too long, the Church of England has concerned herself with issues that leave the world puzzled; and that is damaging. We have retreated too much already from the public sphere.

We need to speak out, and show that, for all its faults, Christian faith in God enables us to flourish as human beings and communities, in ways that secularists and rationalists often fail to see. We need to recapture the imagination of the nation.

THE Anglican Church engages with modernity, and so we do consider what the Spirit is saying to the Churches of today. Traditions develop and grow. But change is different from innovation; we should not embrace the new simply because it is new. The consecration of women as bishops is not only following a modern agenda; it is not just about rights or feminism; much more, it is about showing the world what it means to grow into the full stature of Christ.

Women in the episcopate would reveal this more fully, just as, over the past century, women have contributed different insights and ways of being that have surprised and energised the world. We need to stop storming and start performing. We need to challenge the prevalent view that humanity is atomistic and individualistic, helping people to appreciate our corporate identity as we gather around the Body of Christ.

Women and men are needed to meet the challenge before us, as lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops. We cannot afford to ignore the talents and insights that anyone brings, just because they happen to be of the "wrong" gender. Our response has to be as Anglicans, listening to the Holy Spirit, mindful of our past, and able to change when our traditional Church discerns what is required of us.

How would St Edmund have voted? He might remember those powerful abbesses of East Anglia of his day and the centuries before - women, natural leaders, in charge of monasteries and convents. I am confident that he would have looked for the loyalty to Christ that was the hallmark of his own faith, over and above gender; the preparedness to lay down life for Christ, whether in martyrdom, or in episcopal leadership.

The Very Revd Dr Frances Ward is Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and the author of Why Rousseau was Wrong, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2013.


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