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Women bishops: civilising, or ungovernable energy?

29 May 2015


The panel: (back row left to right) Adam Dinham, director of Faith and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London; Helene Mobius, Pagan Federation prison ministry manager; Saleha Islam, director of the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre; Ms Winkett; Dr Schori; Hilary Cotton, chair of WATCH; Professor Linda Woodhead, director of the Westminster Faith Debates; (front row left to right) the Dean of the Diocese of Kootenay, British Colombia, Nissa Basbaum; Mrs Bottley; Bharti Tailor, executive director of the Hindu Forum of Europe; Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism

The panel: (back row left to right) Adam Dinham, director of Faith and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London; Helene Mobius...

WITNESSES to the "otherness of God", a "big fat Yes", but not necessarily a civilising influence - these were some of the answers given in a debate this week about what difference women bishops might make in the C of E.

The event in St James's, Piccadilly, on Tuesday evening, was organised by the Westminster Faith Debates, and addressed by women leaders from across the globe.

They included the first woman Primate in the Anglican Communion, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Women could offer a "witness to the otherness of God", she said, as could gay bishops, or those who were young, or old, or from BME backgrounds.

"White, male, English-speaking bishops with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge are only one sort," she said. "They cannot image the fullness of God."

Women bishops would help people to "avoid the unconscious assumption that only one kind of human being can have theological insight. . . When leadership begins to represent the variety of human existence, all the baptised people of God can begin to imagine their own ministry, rather than deferring 'ministry' to only one sort of human being. And all God's people begin to realise that they have gifts of leadership in the context of their daily lives."

Dr Schori also argued: "Women's awareness and experience of marginalisation can motivate compassionate responses within the body of Christ." Women were closer in society to the "oppressed and the unfree", she said, and had a willingness to "build bridges across boundaries in order to confront the principalities and powers".

She reported that the "real Communion-wide work on gender violence did not get wide support an action beyond women's groups until a staff member of the ACO - a woman - brought the issue to the Primates' Meeting".

The Rector of St James's, the Revd Lucy Winkett, who was among the first women priests ordained in the UK in the 1990s, warned: "It is not a given that it [women bishops] will make any difference at all."

Women bishops had authority that "will be held differently, but it will not necessarily be held more nicely". She did not subscribe to the belief that women bishops would "civilise the Church": she hoped that women's "ungovernable energy will be poured out into our public future as much as it has been in our domestic history".

Hilary Cotton, who chairs the campaigning group WATCH, reiterated the group's slogan "Just getting started". The current women bishops "get it", she said, regarding "the continuing sexism of the Church of England". They would make a difference only if more women in the Church felt more confident about challenging the "kindly, benign paternalism" that existed.

The panel was asked whether women would have to "morph into men" in order to thrive in the Church. The Vicar of St Mary and St Martin, Blyth, and Scrooby with Ranskill, the Revd Kate Bottley, confessed that she had been "very upset" when called to ordination, because she had presumed she would have to cut her hair and abandon high heels and make-up: "It has been a real battle to carry on expressing myself." She felt that other clergy, including women, sometimes "look slightly down their nose at you, like you are not playing the game properly".

Ms Winkett agreed. "The pressure is enormous to conform and to do it like the men." There was a generational difference, she acknowledged: women priests "who have all the battle scars . . . get really cross with the younger women who seem not to know that there was a fight".

Although it was "difficult to allow women to be different", she wanted to say to those bearing scars: "This is what we did it for."

Mrs Bottley spoke of the cultural challenges facing the Church, describing how her hairdresser, a young student, had not heard of the Church of England, and did not know what a bishop was.

She suggested that the gender of a bishop would not make that much difference to many people, but was important to priests like her. It was "a big fat Yes, a positive affirmation that you are good enough". It would also give the Church "a bit more credibility".

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