The long journey to women bishops

Some people—including the archbishop of Canterbury—said yesterday that the vote in the General Synod of the Church of England to allow women to be bishops is “the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests.”

In fact, the journey began long before that—and many women in the church have lived every moment of it.

profile59Take, for instance, the biography of Vivienne Faull, the current dean of York Minister. As a young women, she worked overseas as a missionary. She returned from that experience to train for ordination. Then she was “ordained”—but as a deaconness, which at the time was as far as women could go. When women could become actual deacons in 1987, she was so ordained. Then in 1994, when women could become priests, she was priested. And now she is tipped to be one of the first women bishops. Along the way, she held some great positions—Cambridge college chaplain and fellow, cathedral canon, and now dean.

What strikes me about her story is the parallels with mine a generation later—worked overseas, came back to study for ordination, Cambridge college life. But there is one crucial difference: no one ever questioned that I should be anything other than a priest. I didn’t have to spend years labouring in orders created especially for my gender. My call to sacramental ministry didn’t have to feel daily frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t celebrate the sacraments. When women were ordained priests, many were told not to make a big deal out of it for fear of offending others. When I was ordained, the church threw a big party and I went on a local radio station to talk a bit about vocation and ministry.

Nor, as a priest, have I ever had to deal with the daily questioning of my vocation by people who don’t think I should be doing what I am doing. Maggi Dawn has written powerfully about what the challenges of training for ministry as a woman in 1994. Vivienne Faull, for a time, had a priest colleague at York Minster who would not receive communion from a woman. No one has ever turned down the host I offered them.

I remember talking with a women priest in the Church of England who was ordained as a deaconness in 1987. She did the customary two curacies as a deacon but it wasn’t clear what the next step was going to be: “It’s a good thing they allowed women to be priests so I could be ordained in 1994 and move to be an incumbent.” At the time, the statement struck me as so odd—why was there a bar that was going to prevent her from doing what all her male peers ordained in 1987 would be doing as a matter of course?

As it is, the journey is not yet over. I don’t understand the ins and outs of canon law but the legislation passed yesterday does make space for people who object to women as bishops, which can be seen to detract from women as bishops.

This is not the post of a naive young male priest all of a sudden discovering that gender discrimination exists in—of all places!—the church. Nor does it say anything that isn’t already well known. This post is simply to say—in a church whose historical memory is often weak—that the church is abundantly blessed with many, many women who have for so long borne the burden of the church’s conflict over gender—and they have borne it with consistently good grace, charity, and love. And as I read the news of the Synod vote, that is what I am most grateful for.

Now, let’s make some of them bishops.

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