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UK >

Why women clergy lead so few large churches

Madeleine Davies

by Madeleine Davies

Posted: 07 Apr 2017 @ 04:49

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Calling: Women are ordained in the diocese of Truro, 2016

Calling: Women are ordained in the diocese of Truro, 2016

CARE for their families is a key reason hardly any women are incumbents of the Church’s largest churches, a new research paper from Ministry Division has concluded.

The study states that women have faced “enormous institutional barriers to ministry specifically because of their gender, manifest in a number of ways”. One of the barriers it names is the “transparent discrimination within the Five Guiding Principles” that were formulated to protect traditionalists and conservative Evangelicals. Among the stories uncovered is that of a curate who was denied maternity pay when she had her second child, and asked to resign by her bishop when eight months pregnant.

But the care of their families is also named as the difference between female and male priests.

At the end of 2015, women made up only four of the 117 incumbents leading churches with a usual Sunday attendance of 350 or more.

The research, agreed by the College of Bishops in September 2014, was undertaken to identify factors inhibiting women from taking up such posts. A report, Vocational pathways: Clergy leading large churches, was published on Thursday. Its author is Dr Liz Graveling, research officer at the Ministry Division.

The study entailed statistical analysis of data on the leaders of the large churches, in addition to 22 interviews with both men and women church leaders, including two women who lead large churches, and two women who lead churches with congregations of between 300 and 350.

One of the factors identified is time-lag: women were first admitted to the priesthood in 1994, and it took the current (overwhelmingly male) leaders of large churches, on average, 14 years to reach their present post after ordination. More than half of them were ordained before 1994.

Almost all (93 per cent) were appointed to their current role in or after 1994, however, and half (49 per cent) in or after 2007. The report concludes: “We would therefore expect women to have been potential candidates for at least 57 of these 117 posts.”

The report goes on to explore discrimination, which is defined as being “based on principles of stable gender differences, including transparent discrimination within the Five Guiding Principles and both formal and informal discrimination in the context of selection, job applications, parish life, collegial relationships, job availability, and HR politics.”

It notes that the C of E is “one of very few contexts in which posts may legally be restricted to male applicants”, and that 18 per cent of the large churches have “Conservative Evangelical associations” (associated with either Reform or Gospel Partnerships). Discrimination in these cases is “entirely transparent and grounded in theological conviction”, it says.

The report goes on to explore the “enormous institutional barriers to ministry” faced by women, arguing that they were particularly prevalent in the 1990s. Four of the women in the sample cited an “explicitly gender-related obstacle” during selection or training during this decade. One was asked to resign from a curacy when pregnant. Such practices “may be far less common now”, the report acknowledges.

The paper also lists less formal obstacles, which “mostly relate to the attitudes and actions of individuals”. One husband refused to be part of a church where he would be under the authority of his ordained wife. One male training incumbent told a woman considering a curacy with him that it would not be necessary for her to attend staff meetings.

Another factor considered is “social processes and stable gender differences”. This section concludes that there is “some evidence that may point towards women and men having different expectations of ministry and of themselves, leading to different choices”. It compares the story of a man who sensed early on that “God might want us to be leading a larger church” to that of a woman who excluded incumbency from potential routes, in part because of a lack of confidence and a desire not to “sacrifice” relationships.

Another woman, currently leading a large church, questioned her bishop’s suggestion that she look at large church rector jobs, wondering whether she was “good enough”. In other instances, however, it was women who enjoyed confidence, and men who struggled with it.

Most of the women in the sample had experienced “less straightforward journeys” to their present post than that experienced by the men. Several began training before 1994, when the possibility of becoming a priest was not certain. One described changing jobs, raising children, negotiating a difficult divorce, and serving under an incumbent unsupportive of women’s ordination.

Analysis of the vocational pathways of the 22 interviewees showed that women were likely to have shorter posts and more frequent changes than men. The “largest influencing factor” on women’s journeys was family. Among the interviewees, all 11 men were married with children; seven of the women were married, two unmarried, one divorced, and one widowed. The women with the least complex routes were those with no dependents. Neither of the two women leading churches of between 300 and 350 people has dependent children. The report speaks of the “little support” available to women in the early days of women’s ordination.

Women may be caught in a double bind, it suggests: “Married applicants are preferred for incumbencies of large churches, but married female clergy find it more difficult than their male counterparts to take up such posts because of family responsibilities”.

It concludes: “Full-time incumbencies of larger churches are likely to remain inaccessible to women with major childcare responsibilities.”

The report notes that, despite having chidren and caring for the needs, this “did not appear to affect men’s ministries as much as women’s”. None switched to part-time or non-stipendiary work in order to raise children, although two mentioned helping with childcare alongside their full-time work, to enable their wives to study. One woman described how her husband gave up his job in order to enable her to find a post when none was available in her sponsoring diocese.

“In general, the ministries of the male participants appear to be central to household decision-making,” the report asserts. “All of the female participants with children either entered ministry later in life or experienced challenges or delays associated with motherhood.”

A final section, drawing on analysis of the leadership of large churches, explores the factors that are conducive to individuals joining their ranks, and concludes that “many of these are areas in which women encounter structural or processual obstacles, whether related to the Church or to wider society.”

For example, almost all of the leaders or large churches are in full-time stipendiary ministry, but only 24 per cent of stipendiary clergy are women. In addition, 72 per cent were ordained under the age of 33, but, currently, only a quarter of young vocations are women.

Analysis indicates that 48 of the leaders have studied for an undergradate or post-graduate degree at Oxbridge (not including ministerial education), and about 60 per cent have a post-graduate degree. Of the four women leading churches of 300 or more, all had either studied at Oxford, Cambridge, or St Andrew’s, or had a doctorate.

At least three-quarters of the largest churches were Evangelical. A total of 61 were members of New Wine or the networks of Holy Trinity, Brompton or the Evangelical Alliance. Seven self-identified as Anglo-Catholic. Of the four churches of more than 300 people led by women, only one was Evangelical. The other women described their churches as liberal or Anglo-Catholic.

However, eight of the women in the study were Evangelical, of which three had a record of helping churches to grow. There was praise for the support offered by New Wine, One commented: “In some ways . . . I think the Anglican Church gives me less opportunity than New Wine.” Women were more likely than men to mention the part played by bishops in their development, most describing them as supportive.

The report’s recommendations include the monitoring of equal-opportunities and recruitment processes in dioceses, the encouragement of young female vocations, and the development of good practice on job-share posts, including for clergy couples.

The issue must be addressed with care, it says, “recognising that large churches are not necessarily more important than small ones and that God may call ministers elsewhere.”

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