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Two steps forward

04 November 2016

WE HAVE stopped counting women bishops in the C of E. Although there will be many “firsts” in dioceses over the coming years, at a national level the nomination of a woman bishop is already unremarkable. Not so in the Church in Wales, which this week announced that Canon Jo Penberthy is to be the new Bishop of St Davids. As other institutions have found, however — the political parties, the City, large corporations — getting anywhere near parity requires sustained commitment. Merely agreeing with women bishops in theory, and finding ways to accommodate those who do not agree, is not enough, as the Scottish Episcopal Church knows.

This same disparity between theory and practice pertains to black and minority-ethnic bishops. Since the retirement of Bishop Wilfred Wood from Croydon in 2002, the C of E has had to rely on Archbishop Sentamu to act as its fig leaf in this area. There is clearly much still to be done to encourage BAME people to enter the priesthood and, once they are clerics, to move on to higher office. It has been argued that evangelism within the black community will be hindered as long as there are no black leaders. We accept that, at the level of first impressions, there might be some truth here, but it is not one we wish to see developed. A church with a black priest does not need to co-opt a white priest to attract white people. Those who minister the Word and sacraments “do not do the same in their own name, but in Christ’s”. It is more that a Church serving an ethnically diverse nation knows that something is amiss if it fails to reflect that diversity in its national leadership. But as various other minorities have found, local interests tend to trump national concerns when diocesan appointments are made. The bias towards white middle-aged males is hard to combat. “We had a white middle-aged male last time, and he didn’t do too badly.” But he, whoever he was, would be the first to admit that he didn’t do everything. There are as many different ways of being a bishop as there are bishops, especially if bishops work collaboratively, as we now expect them to do. To restrict those ways by restricting the type of bishop who gets appointed might not be exactly what God intended for his Church.

As with women bishops, however, there are positive things to report. The Archbishops’ Council is appointing a National Minority Ethnic Vocations Officer. A service in St Paul’s on Tuesday celebrated the work of the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, which for 30 years has supported the slowly growing number of minority-ethnic priests in the C of E. And, bringing the two issues together, there was the news that the Episcopal Church in the United States, by electing the Revd Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as the next Bishop of Indianapolis, has at last found its first black woman diocesan: an extraordinary ordinary. The double jeopardy of being black and a woman means that there are still too few in the Anglican episcopate around the world. Things are moving in the right direction, if not at the speed we would wish.

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