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Church does not value time spent in nurturing children, says WATCH group

04 December 2020

Role models are lacking, and women are not filling enough senior posts, says report


THE Church does not value time spent in nurturing children, but sees it as “time lost away from front-line ministry rather than time spent on developing valuable qualities and skills”, says a report from the campaigning group Women and the Church (WATCH) on the proportion of senior posts held by women.

Their under-representation in these appointments has its roots earlier on in ministry, the report suggests. It refers to a lack of role models, issues about child care, and a default model of ministry as a six-day-week incumbency which “may be off-putting to talented women at certain stages of life”.

Statistics published by WATCH at the end of 2019 showed that women formed 12.5 per cent of diocesan bishops, 27 per cent of suffragan or area bishops, 30 per cent of archdeacons, and 14 per cent of deans. In no diocese were half the incumbent-status posts held by women. In 13 of the 42 dioceses, fewer than a quarter of the incumbents were women.

While the influence of feminist theology over five decades means that a variety of female biblical role-models are more visible and available to be drawn on,the report says, some of those interviewed made a direct link between “headship theology” and the lack of opportunities for women at larger conservative Evangelical churches. The number of female professors in theology and religious-studies departments in the UK has fallen to 16 per cent.

Intentionality in recruitment differs widely from diocese to diocese, the report says. Some of the interviewees spoke of “banter, posturing, showing off and even sexism within the workplace, and even in bishop’s staff meetings, and so it is likely that intentionality in recruitment might be perceived by women as evidence that a good culture exists within that diocese”.

Some bishops’ staff meetings do not have women in regular attendance or membership, and it is, therefore, more challenging for a woman to consider being part of such a team, the report says. A “tick-box” approach to percentages of women bishops is not evident in the appointment of deans.

Differing maternity provision in the dioceses could deter women at every stage, and, as they were deterred from applying for earlier posts, it could be hard to fulfil the requirements for senior positions later on, the report says.

Barriers included the choice of language in job adverts, and reticence: “It can be hard to imagine yourself in a senior role if the role models are few.” For some, the theology of servant leadership has militated against “putting yourself forward for a senior role when you have not been invited or encouraged to do so”.

Secrecy in episcopal appointment interviews was also seen as an off-putting process. Unconscious-bias training was found to be inconsistently delivered across the dioceses. Not everyone on an interview panel was being trained, leading to concern that diversity of all sorts might be hampered. At interviews, women reported the asking of questions about home arrangements which might not be asked similarly of men, and were therefore illegal.

The report also finds, however, that, while women are less likely to apply for senior positions, when they did they were more likely to get them. It finds significant difference in the dioceses over the status and part played by deans of women’s ministry and bishop’s advisers, which affected “how much their voices are heard and how much they can realistically achieve”.

It commends the independent Leading Women programme for women priests, which, it says, has provided “a safe place for women to develop, allowed women to develop positive networks with other women and provided some exposure to key female role models”.

Direct encouragement — not a return to the “old-boy network” but “a tap on the shoulder to apply for a job in a robust and open process and get the job on merit” — has proved a particularly fruitful way of increasing diversity, at least in applications for jobs, the report says.

It identifies intentionality as critical: “a primary mindset in encouraging women at every stage from vocational discernment through to senior roles”.

It recommends creating a culture of trust which enables women to tell their stories without fear of losing their jobs or hopes of future ministries. Unconscious-bias training must be a normal requirement for every interview panel member. The Leading Women course should continue to be funded and its profile be raised. Bids for strategic development funding should be required to set out how their project might improve diversity.

The research team’s interviewees included a diocesan bishop, suffragan bishops, deans, archdeacons, theological staff, and ordinands, as well as senior women in HR teams and teams of diocesan directors of ordinands.

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