CHURCHES that are theologically committed to male headship are once again being urged, for the sake of transparency, to make their policy and practice clear to those both inside and outside the church.
The repeated call from Lizzie Taylor, a member of the Cambridge Churches Women’s Equality Network, comes almost 18 months after the Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Rod Thomas, acknowledged that the criticism of obfuscation needed to be heard, and suggested that churches put a statement on their websites (News, 25 January 2019, 4 October 2019).
Ms Taylor surveyed the websites of all those conservative Evangelical parishes listed on the Bishop’s own website as having passed PCC resolutions on the ministry of women. She found that 126 of the 144 churches made no reference to the issue at all. Of the 15 who did, eight had a transparently worded statement. Only five of the statements were placed where churchgoers might reasonably and logically expect to find them, Ms Taylor said, in sections such as About Us, What We Believe, New Here, Our Theology, or Our Beliefs. Three of the 144 had no website.
Her detailed study showed that the other ten statements were put in the sections where churchgoers, she said, might not expect to have to look to find the information. These included Helpful Links, and Links and Partners (where, for example, a link could be found to the website of the organisation Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood); Training Documents (“While it is not appropriate for a woman to preach to the congregation gathered at church services, or perhaps to lead a Bible study that is also attended by men, we must promote and encourage women’s ministry in other ways”); and History sections. One mention was in only a Parish Profile document of 2014.
“Almost two years after Bishop Thomas became aware of the transparency concern, almost nothing has changed,” Ms Taylor said. “Those churchgoers attending 90 per cent of his churches are still not given access to this information via the website. Many of these churchgoers are trustingly unaware of the kind of ministry they are serving to support, and contributing to financially.”
Churchgoers had the right to be informed, she said. They also needed to be able to trust the Church of England not to withhold information from them.
The websites, Ms Taylor said, were also designed to attract people into churches, for considering whether to join, or to explore such things as weddings and baptisms. “This wider group also have the information withheld from them, when it may affect their decision about whether to choose one church or another,” she said.
Wording such as “In [insert year] our PCC voted to pass a Resolution for male-led ministry at this church and oversight from male-only bishops. This decision will be reviewed in [insert year] after consultation with the parish”, would make the position crystal clear, she said.
WATCH (Women and the Church) reiterates: “It should be possible for individuals looking for a church to find out easily whether this is a church that welcomes the ministry of all, regardless of gender, in all roles. Where the church holds a particular theological position limiting the roles women can fill, which is recognised under the House of Bishops Declaration, that should be clearly explained.”
Bishop Thomas said in response on 29 May: “No Evangelical church would want to put an issue of church order at front and centre of the way they seek to engage on their websites. Rather, their concern is to draw people to those principal activities which will commend Christ. There are many worthwhile facets of church life that people would love to see feature prominently on church websites, but in the main, these have to be kept simple.
“I am grateful for Lizzie Taylor’s work which helpfully reminds us of the need for transparency, but at the same time would want to emphasise that few, if any, of the churches she has reviewed would want to hide their convictions about men’s and women’s ministry; it is simply a matter of how best to present them.
“The fact that all the churches involved are happy to be identified on my website goes some way to meeting the request to give this issue a higher profile. It certainly indicates there is no desire to avoid transparency.”
The report can be found at womenandthechurch.org .