“PLEASE be a little bit dangerous,” the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, urged the two women about to be consecrated bishops in Canterbury Cathedral on Wednesday afternoon.
The women were the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and the first woman diocesan bishop in the Church of England, and the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, Bishop of Crediton, in the diocese of Exeter.
Bishop Newman told them in a spirited address: “Socialise us and subvert us.”
The date was the feast of St Mary Magdalene, a figure whom the Bishop described as “one of the most iconic and enigmatic figures in the Gospels . . . one of the foremost leaders in the group that surrounded Jesus Christ.
“It is shameful, and deeply ironic, that the witness of Christian history — written and formulated essentially by men — so often projects on to Mary little more than the deepest insecurities of the male psyche.” He hoped that women bishops would “challenge the conventions of the C of E, which continues to be led and directed by too many people like me: white, male, middle-aged professionals.
“I hope that women in the College of Bishops will raise non-conformity to new heights in the way they exercise leadership among us. I hope they will disturb our conventions, and unmask the unconscious bias which constrains our models of leadership within the dominant cultural norms that are so powerful that we hardly even notice or question them.” He told them: “Both of you will bring huge gifts to your role as bishops, but I have a suspicion that at heart you will embody a relational approach that is truly distinctive.”
The women share a common background of previous careers in the NHS. Bishop Mullally was Chief Nursing Officer for England, and was made a Dame in 2005 for outstanding services to midwifery. Bishop Treweek worked in the field of paediatric speech-and-language therapy, and in couples-and-family therapy, an area of work that led to a continuing interest in conflict transformation. She will sit in the House of Lords.
The roof-raising hymn “O for a thousand tongues to sing” set the tone for the Gathering and Presentation before the Archbishop of Canterbury. The women made their Declaration of Assent at the Compass Rose, symbol of the worldwide Anglican Communion set into the floor of the cathedral. The Old Testament reading was from the Song of Solomon; the Gospel was the risen Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene, from St John. Then, after the sermon and the creed, the procession moved to the quire for the Declaration, which the women spoke together.
The congregation responded rousingly to the Archbishop’s question, spoken in a commanding voice: “Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that Rachel and Sarah are about to undertake, and you have heard their declarations. Is it now your will that they should be ordained?”
The Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd Robert Willis, had expressed his pleasure that the singing was to be led by Canterbury Cathedral girls’ choir, which was formed only last year. They sang Philip Radliffe’s “God be in my head” at the giving of the episcopal ring and pectoral cross to the newly ordained bishops.
Huge and prolonged applause followed the welcome by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Dean of the Province of Canterbury.
It was a moment after the eucharist that felt the most momentous.
The cathedral fell totally silent when the Archbishop gave the new Bishop of Gloucester her pastoral staff, and the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, assisted him in giving the Bishop of Crediton hers. It was a hushed and holy moment, a highlight of a service that the Archbishop had earlier described as “a great and historic occasion”.
Applause broke out in the quire as the procession went out to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat.
But it was when it moved beyond the quire and into the body of the cathedral that the cheering broke out, an eruption of uninhibited joy.