Chasing the Purple Shirt?
by Jody Stowell
co-published with the Church of England Newspaper, 26 January 2012
2012 is a significant year for discussions on women in the episcopate in the Church of England. In Synod this year there will be much high emotion, fast paced thinking and rash words regarding the legislation which is going to make women bishops a reality in our Church. Sometimes, from the conversations that happen in deanery chapters and any of those strange events when clergy congregate, one might even be under the impression that any women under forty entering the priesthood, were almost entirely doing so for the purpose of wearing a purple shirt.
Indeed recently, the hit comedy ‘Rev.’ picked up on this atmosphere when they showcased the wonderfully talented, ‘Abi’, curate to the main character ‘Adam’. We see her being introduced as ‘women bishop’ material. Adam is immediately threatened, the relationship breaks down and the episode ends by Abi being whisked off for a career progressing position in St Paul’s.
There are two reasons in particular why this caricature is unhelpful in our discussion on women in the episcopate.
Firstly, women do not now enter the priesthood with a glint in their eye, simply because the episcopate will now be open to them. Women enter the priesthood, because they believe that God called them to the priesthood. It has always been so. Indeed, women who were called by God to lead the church when the priesthood was not open to them, still found ways to lead the church! Opening the priesthood to women was for the benefit of all, but we need to have a little less hubris in thinking that it was a wide open inclusion of women who were otherwise sitting moping on the sidelines. Women following the calling of God to them, have been creative in doing so, regardless of what the structures have ‘allowed’ them to do.
And, believe it or not, some women have already been called to be Chief Shepherds in the church before this moment in our history – and they have found ways to do so. For instance, the number of ordained women who seem to be called into Spiritual Direction or mentoring of clergy is high. These women might have been bishops had they been born in a different time, but they are Shepherding the shepherds nonetheless.
The hubris that women are simply waiting in the wings for this moment is astonishing.
Having said all that, I do believe it is essential that women be granted access to the episcopate. But we must explode any myth that this is just a game to ‘let the girls play’, which brings me to my second reason for finding the purple shirt chasing caricature particularly unhelpful.
Women’s ordination has never been about desiring equal power and authority with men in a particular role, it is much more important than that. At its heart is the Genesis call, to all human beings, to name each other as human, and in doing so fulfil their call to be the imago Dei. In Genesis 2.23 the man and the woman recognise that their own definition is caught up in the definition of the other: that without woman there is no ‘man’ and without man there is no ‘woman’. Their own particular humanity is caught up in the particular humanity of the other. The distinctive human trait exhibited, is to recognise the humanity of the other: to name them as human.
Thus, if we fail to recognise the real equal humanity of the person before us, then both their and our own humanity shrivels and shrinks. To proclaim ‘you are not quite as human as me’, as happens when places of power are denied to someone based on their particular humanity, does damage both to the person declared a lesser human, and to the person who declares it. Our humanity is inextricably caught up in the humanity of each other.
And our calling to name each other as fully human is inextricably linked with who we are as God’s Church. The Church, in order to fulfil its own calling, must see men and women standing alongside each other, engaged in the business of declaring each other’s full humanity. In doing so, we will learn again what it is to be the imago Dei: to be those bringing about the flourishing, rather than the diminishing, of the other. Rediscovering the nature of our relationship to each other - being the imago Dei together as men and women - is essential in order to be those fully able to engage in the mission of God to grow the Kingdom of God.
In other words, the episcopate needs to be open to women, not so that we can claim equal power and authority, but so that we all remain human.
And so that the whole church can live up to its calling to be the imago Dei, joining in the missio Dei, to grow the regnum Dei.