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Women’s equality has a long way to go, says Minghella

05 October 2019

Stefano Cagnoni/Church Times

Loretta Minghella before portraits of earlier First Estates Commissioners

Loretta Minghella before portraits of earlier First Estates Commissioners

THE journey towards a Church “perceived as genuinely concerned to include women as much as men” has “not so much miles to go, as continents to cross”, the First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, told the annual general meeting of WATCH on Saturday.

Citing the lack of women in senior posts in the C of E, and the pay gap in the Church’s National Church Institutions, as well as wider issues of inequality beyond the Church, she suggested that a willingness to be “political” was among the steps that women must take in order to achieve equality.

“So often we may internalise the stereotypes, and think of politics as a game men like to play — that being political is somehow a bit cheap and not to be done, or to be done but not to be admitted,” she said. “We are in danger of lumping under this banner all efforts to build networks and coalitions of the willing. It is right to be fearful of politics without integrity. But politics with integrity is just common sense.”

She urged WATCH to help General Synod, the Archbishops’ Council, and the Lords Spiritual to engage with issues of gender equality, so that the Church might “systematically to speak into those issues as it does on other key issues, such as the environment”.

Formed in 1996, WATCH (Women and the Church) secured one of its ten founding aims in 2014, when the Synod voted in favour of women bishops (News, 18 July 2014). Among the objectives that remain are “justice and the ending of discrimination against women in the Church of England”. On Saturday, Ms Minghella, the first woman to occupy the post of First Church Estates Commissioner (Features, 23 March 2018), thanked the group “for your struggles and your campaigning, your thoughtfulness, your prayerfulness, and your encouragement”. It was one of the organisations that would “help to lead us on” towards gender equality, she said.

Among the evidence of inequality she cited were statistics compiled by WATCH and published a year ago, which indicated that, in seven dioceses, women constituted fewer than 20 per cent of incumbents. She also highlighted the pay gap at the Church’s National Church Institutions (Press, 30 November 2018), related in large part to the under-representation of women in more senior roles. Unconscious-bias training, mentoring, and the better briefing of headhunters were all being deployed in attempts to address this.

“We won’t be happy until we see much greater balance in the numbers, whichever way you hold them up,” she said. “We are committed to appointing on merit with no token appointments, so this is certainly not going to happen overnight.”

Among Ms Minghella’s advice was that women must suppress their fear of failure, “those historic voices and near subliminal messages which tell us that we are not worthy”, and apply for posts of influence.

Her address included personal biography. When aged 14, she had been told that studying law would be “too difficult” for her, and that she was not “English enough” to be a diplomat. After graduating from Cambridge University she was asked “illegal questions” by law firms about her plans to have children.

She also described weeping while watching from the public gallery the fall of the Women Bishops measure in 2012 (News, 16 November 2012).

“I know that those who do not accept the ordination of women thought it was the correct outcome, and spoke and speak from a deep belief in their theological mandate. I respect their right to freedom of belief and expression. I am committed to our mutual flourishing. But that day it felt so, so costly.”

Both the Second and Third Church Estates Commissioners are also women: Eve Poole and Caroline Spelman. Ten of the 26 commissioners “who normally sit around our board table” were women, double the number when she began work two years ago, Ms Minghella reported.

Noting that Dame Caroline’s resignation was prompted in part by threats of violence, she observed that “threats against women are distinctive, in that they include credible threats of a sexual nature including threats to rape” (News, 12 September).

Formerly chief executive of Christian Aid, she devoted much of her speech to a global picture of “fundamental imbalances of power. . . It is time to look to the mission of the Church more broadly and to ask, for all the women within the Church and those beyond affected by the Church’s choices and its focus, what is the best contribution we in the Church can make for the good of women inside and outside the Church and so for the common good?”

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