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Bishop of Dover stamps on eggshells at WATCH conference

24 April 2024

Accepting the settlements on women’s ordination was an ‘error of judgment’ she said


The Bishop of Dover, speaking at the WATCH conference on Saturday

The Bishop of Dover, speaking at the WATCH conference on Saturday

ACCEPTING the settlements that enabled the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate was an “error of judgment”, the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, said on Saturday.

Addressing the Not Equal Yet Conference organised by Women and the Church (WATCH) at St John’s, Waterloo, the Bishop, who, as the Bishop in Canterbury, is responsible for the day-to-day running and leadership of the diocese, was critical of the provision of episcopal ministry and the working of the Five Guiding Principles that accompanied the women-bishops legislation (News, 16 July 2021).

“I may be the only one here, but I am not afraid to say that I believe it was an error of judgement that led us to accept the blinkered and restrained conditions of women being priested,” she said. “I really genuinely believe that.”

In her remarks, Bishop Hudson-Wilkin recalled Mary’s assent in the Gospels, and wondered what the story would have been “if Mary had turned around and said: ‘I cannot possibly agree to this because the Pharisees and the Scribes’ — in effect the teachers of the law — ‘need to be the ones to say its’ OK first.’”

She went on to apply this formula to the question of women’s ordination: “‘I cannot possible agree to this unless Rome says it’s OK . . .,’ ‘Unless the Orthodox does it first.’ I suspect Simeon and Anna would still be in the temple waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled.”

Such a reaction was “heavily disguised as a concern for Christian unity”, she said. “And that concerns me because I want unity also.

“But perhaps it tells us something of our lack of confidence in who we think we are as a Church. I do not believe for one moment that Rome, or the Orthodox, filled with the conviction of the Spirit on any important matter such as this, would say: ‘We can’t do this unless the Anglicans or the Orthodox are doing it.’ Or even play the unity card.”

She read aloud from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Caged Bird”. “This poem aptly captures some of the experiences of women in our Church today with our wings clipped and our feet tied to structures and procedures that are in effect unequal and un-Anglican,” she said. “An example of this being the bishop no longer being a focus of unity for the whole Church. Because if we don’t agree with a particular direction, we ask for our own personalised bishop who we can relate to.

“Where will this stop? I grew up in a Church that said it didn’t matter who the priest was, or what the priest did: it had no impact on the sacrament. And suddenly it is a women, and it matters. ‘We could not possibly have a woman at the altar.’

“What happened to that teaching that said it didn’t matter? Thrown out the window.”

She also read aloud the first of the Five Guiding Principles, part of the House of Bishops’ Declaration that accompanied the legislation enabling the admission of women to the episcopate.

The first principle states that “the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience.”

Blue Coat SchoolOther name: Bishop Rose HudsonWilkin at Blue Coat School, Coventry, earlier this month, at the official opening of a sixth-form building named in her honour

Bishop Hudson-Wilkin asked: “Can we really genuinely say this, when embedded within our very structures we embrace a conflicted General Synod that behaves like whipped political-party members ready to jump in the direction of their ideological masters in the form of their party groups? . . . When we elect CNCs [the Crown Nomination Commission, which nominates bishops] who are diametrically opposed to women in leadership? . . .When we financially support theological colleges that teach the exact opposite? Let’s wake up!”

She recalled that when her appointment as Bishop was announced, a recently ordained curate in the diocese had “downed tools and refused to work”. It was, she said, “immoral [for him] to continue to receive his stipend while not working”. He had been allowed to move to another diocese.

She did not wish to hold on to “the righteous rage that I feel from time to time”, she said. “But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage. It is debilitating to hold on to our rage, because our souls need to sing of freedom, which comes from walking the way of Christ.”

She was “saddened” by a question from the audience which noted that the Julian Shrine in Norwich was in the parish of St John the Baptist, Timberhill, which was a traditional Catholic parish. “Gather as a group of women and go there and be there and sit there and stand there, because it shouldn’t be,” she said. “Don’t take it lying down.”

Bishop Hudson-Wilkin was asked why “some women feel so passionate that relating well with their colleagues who do not believe in their priestly calling is a greater good than calling for change”.

She replied that there was “something going on when women consciously and unconsciously are being made to feel or to think that they need to shrink, that they need to not shine, so that others can. And actually I think we need to shine together and be much bolder . . .

“We have been walking around on [an] eggshell. . . We are tiptoeing along on it. Let’s stop tiptoeing on it. Let’s be honest, lovingly.”

She told the audience that she had “no intention” of going to the “alternative” chrism mass in her diocese, quoting Jesus’s instruction to “shake the dust from your feet”. “Why would I want to go to a place to be humiliated?”

The conference’s stated aim was to “break the current taboo in the Church of England about continuing discrimination against women and to start some conversations about whether it is now time to start treating women and men equally”.

The chair of WATCH, the Vicar of St Michael’s, Chiswick, the Revd Martine Oborne, thanked Bishop Hudson-Wilkin for “saying things that we sometimes feel are unsayable”.

During a debate on same-sex blessings in the General Synod last year, Bishop Hudson-Wilkin said: “the women-bishops thing ain’t working — and we are paying the price” (News, 14 July 2023).

Among the other speakers at the conference was the Revd Dr Mark Chapman, Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Professor of the History of Modern Theology at the University of Oxford. He described the Five Guiding Principles as “completely incoherent” and “theological nonsense”.

As a Synod member, he had voted for them because they “codified the mess that was already there”, he said. The “real damage” had been done in 1993 when “a structural solution urged on by an overactive Parliament, chiefly to appease frightened bishops, was created by an Act of Synod, and the Five Guiding Principles suggest that that is now here to stay.”

The Act of Synod had “effectively destroyed the sacramental unity of the Church”. But it was not ecclesiastical law, he said. The “flying bishops” were simply suffragan bishops, and “could be withdrawn overnight”.

On Wednesday, the director of Forward in Faith, Tom Middleton, said: “The Church of England rightly expects clergy who hold different views on the sacrament of Holy Orders to act with charity and generosity on this issue, in line with its Five Guiding Principles.

“Calling for an end to the 2014 settlement a mere ten years after its introduction would appear to fall outside that expectation. The Catholic movement upholds the sacramental witness of the universal Church and, in so doing, calls the Church of England back to its origins.”

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