The woman on the left is Martha Yar Mawut, the archdeacon of Akot in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Akot is a see city, so it’s a pretty important role. She was an important lay evangelist during the war, was later ordained, and now, by all accounts, performs her job with admirable skill and talent.
If you believe, as I do, that having women bishops is part of the Anglican charism to the wider body of Christ, then women like Martha matter. Archdeacons are among the prospective bishops of the church. The more women like Martha there are in South Sudan, the greater the chance that one of them will become a bishop.
But I don’t think Martha will ever be a bishop. And thinking about her helps us think through some of the obstacles to women bishops in the Anglican Communion.
The topic of women as bishops came up frequently on my recent visit to South Sudan. Everyone I spoke to—male bishops, male and female priests, lay people—were in favour of the idea. It makes sense. Women played a huge role in the growth of the church during the civil war. Male church leaders know that the strength of their church is in the women.
The Episcopal Church of the Sudan has ordained women for about a dozen years. A few are archdeacons, canons or, in one instance, a cathedral dean. In fact, on a rough estimate, I’d say the proportion of female clergy in ECS compares favourably to that in the Church of England, given that the C of E has ordained women as priests for roughly twice as long
Nor is there any canonical impediment to women bishops in South Sudan. When ECS made the decision to ordain women as priests and deacons, they (sensibly) concluded that it did not make sense (theological or otherwise) to deny women to be ordained as bishops.
So there are women like Martha in leadership in dioceses—not many, but some—and there is a path towards women bishops. So why aren’t there any?
The answer I heard, time and again, is education. Given the civil war and the lack of resources in South Sudan, training for ordination is of a necessarily ad hoc and contingent nature. Some people go for a few months to a vernacular Bible college or a diocesan training course, others are fortunate to attend ECS’ English-language seminary, a very small handful have studied abroad. For a variety of reasons, women clergy, by and large, are less educated than their male counterparts.
But ECS has a de facto requirement that its bishops be able to speak English so that they can take part in churchwide meetings. They also have to have some kind of diploma or degree. These are good requirements to have, but it means that many women who perform faithful, important ministry in their local context are unable to be considered when it comes time to elect bishops. Martha could greet me in English, but all my conversation with her was through a translator.
None of this is to minimize the unique array of cultural obstacles women in South Sudan face in pursuing leadership. But to people who know only about the “African church” that it is some kind of misogynistic institution, you would be surprised how much support I heard for women bishops in ECS.
There has been good news of late for supporters of women bishops: the first woman bishop in the Church of Ireland and the Church of South India, the first woman ordained in the Church of England elected bishop (albeit in New Zealand), and canonical changes in Wales to permit the possibility of women bishops.
So much of the debate about women bishops focuses on the canonical changes necessary. That’s good, but it’s not enough. The lesson of my recent visit to South Sudan seems to be that if you want more women bishops, support theological education.
UPDATE: Conversations sparked by this post led to a second post laying out ways to support theological education in South Sudan.