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Book review: Gender Inequality in the Ordained Ministry of the Church of England: Examining conservative male clergy responses to women priests and bishops by Alex D. J. Fry

05 April 2024

Leslie Francis reflects on dissenting C of E voices on the ordained ministry of women

THIS book promises a fresh social-scientific analysis of how theologically conservative clergymen respond to the ordination of women within the Church of England. At the heart of this analysis, there are 41 interviews conducted with clergymen within a doctoral dissertation. Not all doctoral dissertations make a good book, but this one certainly does. These roots in a doctoral project are reflected in four key strengths.

The first strength is the thoroughness with which the context has been set with an accessible overview of relevant literature. Chapter one locates the development of women’s ordination, and documents the research literature into the experiences of clergywomen. Chapter two places the Church of England and gender in a wide historical perspective.

The second strength is the professionalism with which the data from 41 clergymen have been gathered, documented, and analysed. Key theoretical issues are discussed concerning conceptualisation (how do gender attitudes and gender values differ?), participant selection (why were all the clergy from the same diocese?), method of data analysis (what are the strengths and limitations of thematic narrative analysis?), and reflexivity (where does the author himself sit within these complex issues?).

The third strength is how these new data were set in dialogue with relevant theory shaped within the social sciences, including sociology and social psychology. Of particular significance for Fry is the early work of Gordon Allport (1954) in The Nature of Prejudice, the study that paves the way for Allport’s insightful introduction of the “contact hypothesis” as illuminating pathways for dissolving prejudice.

The fourth strength is the clarity with which participants were recruited. Fry distinguishes among three groups whom he characterises as conservative Evangelicalism, Charismatic Evangelicalism, and traditional Anglo-Catholic. For conservative Evangelicalism, Fry recruited 14 members of Reform. For Charismatic Evangelicals, Fry recruited 14 participants whose churches held membership of the New Wine Network. For traditional Anglo-Catholics, Fry recruited six members of Forward in Faith, who in turn recommended a further seven like-minded colleagues.

As a fellow researcher who likes to be immersed in raw data, I was especially drawn to chapter three, in which we are first introduced to the voices of the three groups of clergymen. Two key themes are identified among members of Reform. The first concerns the created order of male headship and female submission. While this view held firm across family life and church life, Reform participants held mixed views about women taking the lead in the secular workplace. The second theme concerns ambivalent attitudes towards feminism, leading to the selective incorporation of its gender values while remaining conservative on women’s ordination.

Among Charismatic Evangelicals, three themes are identified. There is affirmation of women’s ordination and rejection of the theology of headship and submission. While there is consciousness of observable differences in male and female leadership, there is belief in the flexibility of gender roles. There are ambivalent attitudes towards feminism.

Interviews among Anglo-Catholics evidenced continued resistance towards contemporary gender norms. The arguments against the ordination of women were rooted not in scripture, but in tradition and sacramentality. The ecumenical objection was rooted in deviation from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The sacramental objection was rooted in the part played by the priest at the altar. The apostolic objection was rooted in the historic chain continuous with the male apostles appointed by Jesus. Overall, Anglo-Catholics expressed more positive attitudes towards feminism.

By putting qualitative data in dialogue alongside seriously developed social-scientific theories, this study has put in place hypotheses that deserve further serious testing, drawing on quantitative methods alongside qualitative methods. This should help to set the future academic agenda.

By drawing attention so clearly to the differences between the underlying motivations of conservative Evangelicals, Charismatic Evangelicals, and Anglo-Catholics, this study has also sharpened awareness of the extent of fragmentation within the Church of England, and the fragility of alliances between dissenting groups. While conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics can unite against the ordination of women, they cannot stand together against the Living in Love and Faith agenda.

In principle, the strength of the Anglican tradition remains in its capacity to hold together diversity (Catholic and Reformed), and to do so within an episcopal diocesan structure. This study may lead to a better understanding of the breaking points within the Church of England, and help to show that the primary question is not really over the ordination of women (or even over same-sex marriage). The primary question concerns how a theology of individual differences and diversity can contain opposing perspectives within a Communion in which what is shared in common is valued more highly than what divides.

The Revd Professor Leslie J. Francis is co-director of the World Religions and Education Research Unit at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, and Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral.

Gender Inequality in the Ordained Ministry of the Church of England: Examining conservative male clergy responses to women priests and bishops
Alex D. J. Fry
Routledge £130
Church Times Bookshop £117

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