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Three women bishops and counting. . .

08 November 2013

The General Synod is about to debate new proposals on women bishops. Three have been elected in Churches in communion with Canterbury in 2013. They talked to Pat Ashworth

Promised: the Rt Revd Eggoni Pushpalalitha

Promised: the Rt Revd Eggoni Pushpalalitha

OF THE three most recently appointed women bishops, two are the first in their respective Churches of the Anglican Communion. One is the fourth generation of her family to be an ordained minister; one was dedicated to Christian service before she was born; and one comes from a family with no history of churchgoing at all. Their lives and the sphere of their ministries are as different as their backgrounds, and none of the three expected to become a bishop.

Least likely to rise to the top might have been Eggoni Pushpalalitha, now the Bishop of Nandyal, in the Church of South India, simply for the fact that she comes from the Dalit community, formerly known as "untouchables", regarded as the lowest caste in India.

That was no barrier to her devout parents, who, having lost twins at birth, promised God that the next child would be dedicated to Christian service: "Right from the beginning, I was brought up with that knowledge," the Bishop says. She attributes her spiritual character to the missionary schools and college in which she was educated.

Her father is literate; her mother is not. Her family comes from an agricultural background in Diguvapadu, in Andhra Pradesh. "Although we come from an 'untouchable' class, our parents spent beyond their resources to give us a good-quality education," she says. "[They determined that], with God's grace, the committed and continued prayers of my family members, and abundant faith in Lord Jesus, we could come up in life and be a model to others."

Although she wanted to study theology, it was not with the particular intention of becoming a priest. It was her parents who pressed the late Bishop of Rayalaseema, the Rt Revd L. V. Hajaraiah, for her to train for ordination.

"They told him: 'That alone will satisfy our family desire,'" she says. "He was a great visionary, and promised my family that he would fulfil our long-cherished wish. So, having an Anglican background, I became one of the first women priests in the Church of South India."

She says that she encountered no opposition in any congregation in which she subsequently ministered. "They did not differentiate me from male priests, maybe because of my approach, my rapport with them, and my service. I have worked in many capacities for the past 30 years, and there was virtually no hitch or problem with the people, only some grumblings here and there among priests."

SHE describes her election as the first woman bishop in India as "a pure act of God", after "a bitter battle to be elected on to the panel, in a stiff contest where 11 male priests fought against me. Once elected to the panel, we relentlessly prayed, and put our hopes at the altar of God. God does wonders, and led the Moderator and selection -committee members with his Holy Spirit. It is a marvellous thing to have happened in our family life.

"I believe that God has blessed me with this as a recognition and reward for my ministry, and to make use of me as an instrument to manifest to the world that men and women are equal before him, and he does not distinguish between them."

The majority of church members in her rural diocese are agricultural labourers from Dalit families, most of them with meagre financial resources. Health care, education, and evangelism to unreached people are declared priorities that, within the Church, include instilling a sense of discipline and order, particularly among the clergy. Christians, she says, are regarded as pious, honest, and loving people, who give equal respect to other religions; so the Church of South India commands considerable respect.

All eyes are on her, as the country's first woman bishop. Good wishes have poured in from people all over the world, including the Roman Catholic community, and she concludes: "Not only the community of Churches, but people belonging to other religions are eagerly watching how I will be able to lead the Church."

PATRICIA STOREY, now the Bishop-elect of Meath & Kildare, in Ireland, grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. But, aside from the death of her father's cousin in a bomb blast, she describes her upbringing as normal. "It's like people living anywhere with conflict - you just get on with it," she says. "You didn't really think about it unless anything cropped up near by. We had bomb scares every week, if not every day, at school, but of course you loved that, because it got you out of class."

She reflects, though, that the conflict moulded the congregation of St Augustine's, Londonderry, whose Rector she has been since 2003. As the city's west bank became increasingly Roman Catholic in the late 1970s, Protestants crossed the River Foyle in droves to live on the other side. But a committed congregation continued to worship at St Augustine's, a lively, family church by the city walls.

The congregation would have had to cross the heavily militarised bridge. "Coming to church in the 1970s could have taken two hours, because they and their cars would be stopped and searched. You'd have to have been committed to stay a member of the church," she says.

"I think there's still a flavour of that at St Augustine's, in a very faithful, committed core of people. It's an amazing place, and I have been very happy here with my husband and children."

WHEN people see a clerical collar, they assume that you have always been religious, she says. But this was not true in her case. "We were a family who didn't have a faith. I was hardly ever in a church until I came to faith when I was 19, through Christian friends at Dublin University. The personality of Jesus leaped out at me, and I thought: 'I really like this guy.'"

She was reading French and English. "I had a very glamorous aunt who was an air hostess, and I did languages so that I could travel and do that," she says. "But the moment I came to faith, that changed, and I really wanted to do some sort of Christian ministry."

She went into Church of Ireland youth-work, married a clergyman, had children, and did various part-time jobs, "but working all along on some call to Christian leadership".

After training at the Church of Ireland Theological College (now Institute), she was ordained priest in 1998. Being a woman priest has hardly ever been an issue for her. "I genuinely don't think of myself as a female minister, but a minister who happens to be female. I don't make gender a big issue, and, because I don't, I didn't get a lot of opposition," she says, adding with a laugh, "unless there's stuff going on over my head, which is perfectly possible."

Her appointment came as "a huge shock" to her. "I don't think anyone was expecting it just yet," she says. "The response has been 99-per-cent positive, which makes me think the time is right. There is a collegiality about waiting for the right time, and I think that is the right thing to do. I have to trust this is God's call on my life, and, if it is, God will smooth the way."

The time for the Church of England will be very soon, she believes. "There will always be people who may never be there; you just have to accept that you can't win them all."

She will be ministering to a largely rural, commuter diocese of 18 parishes, half an hour from Dublin. She is used to being asked whether women bring any unique gifts to the episcopacy, and says: "The honest answer is, I don't know. It's often said that women are empathetic and pastoral; but I know a lot of men who are, and a lot of women who aren't.

"Possibly what a woman brings is being a mother. That is unique. I understand family life and domestic life, and I wonder how many bishops have gone and put a wash on and done the ironing before they go out. That's going to be my life."

HELEN-ANN HARTLEY, now the Bishop-elect of Waikato, in the diocese of Waikato & Taranaki, has the distinction of being the first woman priest who was ordained in the Church of England to become a bishop. Her diocese in Aotearoa, New Zealand, was the first to suggest that women could be ordained to the priesthood, and the province has had women bishops since 1989, when the Rt Revd Penny Jamieson was selected as the Bishop of Dunedin.

Consequently, her appointment has caused interest, but is no real talking-point. Pockets of conservatism do exist, but are not a block on women's episcopal authority and, she says, after decades of living with the reality of women bishops, people are far more interested in the sexuality debate. Christianity is comparatively recent in New Zealand, and the country's prevailing culture has enabled the progression of women in the Church to be less of an issue.

"The UK has far more layers of history, and the Church isn't burdened with the same sort of history and traditions as the Church of England," she says. "New Zealand society is, in many ways, built on fairness. Society here is rooted in its indigenous and Maori culture - there's a great striving for justice, and equality among the Maori people, and that seeps into the whole Church."

Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Presbyterian ministers in the Church of Scotland. The family became Anglicans when her father was ordained (and she was confirmed) in Durham diocese by Bishop David Jenkins. Educated at the universities of St Andrews, Princeton, and Oxford, she came to New Zealand with her husband in 2011 after a curacy in Oxford, and tutorship at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, to take up the post of Dean of St John's Theological College, Auckland.

SHE is 40 years of age, and reflects that her age is "probably more of an advantage than a disadvantage. They are really keen here to grow vocations in younger people, and reach out and connect with the younger generation; so you could say that appointing a bishop my age might make that more accessible." The previous three bishops of the diocese have all been in their late thirties or forties.

Waikato is a place to which she feels strongly called at this time, although, she says, "It's all been most unexpected." The bicultural diocese, affected by the 19th-century colonial wars, and engaged in ongoing reconciliation, is unusual in having two co-equal diocesan bishops and two cathedrals, one in New Plymouth (Taranaki) and one in Hamilton (Waikato).

A vast, predominantly rural area with a big hydro-electric station, it embraces the film location for The Lord of the Rings: the Bishop of Waikato has been dubbed "the Bishop of Middle Earth".

The blend of Maori, Polynesian, and European bishops in a Church constitutionally divided into three, and with distinct measures to respect the different ethnicities, "works on a good day, but has its challenges as well", she says. "The liturgy is recognisably Anglican, and other things, too, have that DNA of what it is to be Anglican. And Fresh Expressions has just started to become really important here, in the New Zealand context."

She is watching, with some anguish, the ongoing debate in the Church of England. In 2008, before the Lambeth Conference, she took part in a three-day conference, Transfiguring Episcopacy, and remembers being dispatched to Heathrow to pick up the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori.

All 14 women bishops were present. "Just being surrounded by the other women bishops was an experience in itself. I never thought I'd end up joining the ranks," she says.

"I hope the other appointments, happening in such a short space of time, will be an encouragement to others. There is pain and frustration following the November vote, but I think it's important that the Church looks forward as much as it can, and doesn't feel burdened by the past. The Church of England will be there. It will have to appreciate its very different history and context."

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