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Why Ireland has no woman bishop

22 February 2013

Despite a vote in favour in 1990, the process is unlikely to deliver one,says Ian Poulton


Who's missing? The Bishops of the Church of Ireland, seen in 2010 - who are yet to include a woman

Who's missing? The Bishops of the Church of Ireland, seen in 2010 - who are yet to include a woman

WHEN the Measure to allow women bishops in the Church of England failed to garner the necessary number of votes, there was a smugness on this side of the Irish Sea. "How backward the Church of England is: we approved women bishops in 1990."

The Church of Ireland General Synod expressed its belief that it was theologically consistent to approve the principle of women in the episcopate at the same time as approving their admission to the priesthood, back in 1990. The Church of Ireland affirmed the ministry of those who did not concur with the vote, but did not make provisions for parishes to opt out of receiving women's ministry. Yet, 23 years after the vote, no woman bishop has been elected, nor is there likely to be one in the foreseeable future.

It is not that women have not been around enough: 23 years is the average time spent from ordination as deacon to consecration as bishop by members of the present bench - a period corresponding to the time during which the election of a woman has been a possibility. It is not that women do not have experience: compared with the Church of England, the Church of Ireland is very "flat"; there is nothing by way of a hierarchical structure; only a small handful of cathedrals have deans who are not also priests of the local parish; and there are no full-time archdeacons.

As a result, the elected bishops are almost invariably parish clerics, a position in which women have a competence comparable to that of their male counterparts. It is not that we are against women in principle: it is just that when it comes to practice, there are always good reasons to appoint a man.

Since the failure of the Church of England General Synod vote on women bishops to be carried by the necessary two-thirds majority in November, the Church of Ireland has had two opportunities to demonstrate its commitment to inclusive ministry; and yet, in the elections on 28 January and 4 February, everyone knew that there would be no prospect of anything historical happening.

In the diocese of Meath & Kildare, it was widely expected in the weeks before the election that the very strong internal candidate would be elected, and he was. In the diocese of Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh, it was assumed by many that the person elected would be in the conservative Evangelical tradition of his predecessor, and he was.

Both candidates were strong figures, with much to contribute to their dioceses and to the wider Church, and no one could fault the electoral process.

It is this process, which is very democratic, that will ensure that there is no prospect of a woman bishop. The process has its roots in the general vestry, the annual general meeting of the parish. Once every three years, the general vestry, which is usually a gathering of the committed and traditional parishioners, elects members to the diocesan synod. In turn, the diocesan-synod members hold elections for various bodies, including the diocesan electoral colleges.

By the time you reach the level of a diocesan synod, you are generally dealing with people deeply rooted in tradition, people whose church membership stretches back decades. I have spoken at diocesan synods North and South, urban and rural, and it is remarkable how similar they are in composition: good, solid, faithful church members, who have seen much come and go, and who are not given to change. It seems unimaginable that from such bodies would come an electoral college that would contemplate anything radical.

The ordination of women as priests in 1990 was not seen as a fundamental shift; in a low-church Protestant tradition, it was a matter of adjusting the place of women "ministers". Having a woman bishop, someone who would be presiding at big occasions, and who would be the voice and face of the Church of Ireland in civic and political life, would be something altogether different.

It is surely hardly surprising that socially conservative church members would vote in a socially conservative manner at an electoral college. What would be a surprise would be if any of them at all supported a woman candidate.

Yet, if a similar democratic process had been used in the approach towards human equality in wider society, would such equality have ever been achieved? Perhaps if the removal of sexual and racial discrimination had depended on popular votes, there would never have been progress. Leadership is sometimes a matter of leading people where they do not want to go.

It seems likely that the Crown Nominations Commission in England will send for Downing Street's approval the name of a woman candidate long before a woman in Ireland approaches the necessary two-thirds majority in an Irish electoral college.

Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote: "There is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through, than initiating change." One would hardly wish to encourage a Machiavellian approach, but, unless the bishops decide to take some firm course of action, the Church of Ireland seems unlikely to elect a woman to the bench for years to come.

Canon Ian Poulton is Rector of the Clonenagh Group of parishes in County Laois.

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