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Why women clergy lead so few large churches

13 April 2017


Singing out: women are ordained in Guildford Cathedral, in July, 2016

Singing out: women are ordained in Guildford Cathedral, in July, 2016

WOMEN make up 28 per cent of the stipendiary clergy, but lead only three per cent of the C of E’s largest churches. A new research paper from the Ministry Division has concluded that the causes are “enormous in­­stitutional barriers to ministry specifically because of their gender, manifest in a number of ways”.

At the end of 2015, women made up only four of the 117 incumbents of churches with a usual Sunday attendance of 350 or more. Taking into consideration the fact that women were first ordained into the priesthood in 1994, and that it took the current (overwhelmingly male) leaders of large churches, on average, 14 years to reach their present post after ordination, the researchers conclude that they “would therefore expect women to have been potential candidates for at least 57 of these 117 posts”.

After factoring in the fact that these posts are almost always stipendiary, and that just 24 per cent of stipendiary priests are women (this is based on 2012 figures), this figure is revised to 13 of the posts.

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

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 curate was denied maternity pay when she had her second child, and was asked to resign by her bishop when she was eight months 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” with 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, had 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 had confidence, and men who struggled with it.

Most of the women in the sample had experienced “less straight­forward journeys” to their present post than those 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 and had children; seven of the women were married, two were un­married, one was divorced, and one was widowed. The women with the least complex routes were those with no dependants. Neither of the two women whose congregations numbered between 300 and 350 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 concern for their children’s needs “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 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 clergy 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 clergy of 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 clergy have studied for an under­gradate or postgraduate degree at Oxford or Cambridge (not including ministerial education), and about 60 per cent have a postgraduate degree. Of the four women with churches of 300 or more, all had studied at Oxford, Cambridge, or St Andrews, 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.

Eight of the women in the study were Evangelical, however, of whom 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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