Women Bishops are not a problem that need to be resolved but a truth to be rejoiced over.
A Positive Vision for Women Bishops
Conference Address from 16 March 2013
Church in all its Fullness #wb16mar
by Stephen Kuhrt
Well thank you and can I add my welcome of you all to Christ Church, New Malden today. If I could go back in time, there are a number of things I would change about 20th November last year. Most obviously, I guess, the result of that crucial vote! But just as much, actually, the nature of the discussion and debate that ran up to it – not just on that day in General Synod but in the weeks and months that preceded it. And the reason I say this, and I’m sure many of you already agree with this, is because far too much of that discussion and debate centred upon women bishops, and women’s ministry more generally, as a problem to be solved. How do we sort out this knotty problem of establishing women bishops! How do we get women bishops whilst inflicting minimum damage upon the church! That was the tone of much of the debate. This was partly due to opponents saying that they had accepted that women bishops were going to happen and that the issue was simply one of the safeguards being provided for those opposed. But it was also, I think, through many supporters of women bishops being reluctant to spell out a really positive vision for women bishops. Perhaps because they regarded it as a ‘no brainer’. But perhaps, as well, through an understandable reluctance to go through seeing such a vision immediately knocked down and the sense as well that no one opposed to women bishops was likely to change their mind.
But that positive vision for women bishops does need spelling out. The issue of safeguards for opponents is important and later on we’ll be giving some thought to that. But at the forefront of the debate and discussion should surely be a vision for why this development of Christian ministry will be exciting and transforming to the ministry and mission of the church in this country. I want women bishops because I believe it is completely biblical, I want women bishops because I believe it is unfair to have an area within the church where women’s gifts cannot be exercised. I can’t think of where an equivalent exists for men. But more than anything, I want women bishops because I believe that, properly established, they will have a wonderfully transforming affect upon the health of the Church of England and make us so much better at the task which God has called us to, namely the evangelising or bringing of the Good News of Jesus Christ to this nation.
And for me personally this inevitably extends out of my existing experience of women’s ministry and the transforming affect I have seen it have. The church that we are in today – Christ Church, New Malden was built in 1866 and its had ten vicars in its time, all of them male! But it’s nonetheless had an interesting history in terms of women’s ministry, not only sending scores of women abroad to serve as missionaries but having quite a flourishing of female leadership here as deaconesses and then deacons in the late seventies and eighties. Like a lot of evangelical churches, the decision to ordain women as priests in 1992 then brought a polarisation here which, in some ways, rather set these developments back. But in the last few years, women’s ministry has once again really taken off here with two women curates here at Christ Church, a female Associate Vicar at our daughter church St John’s and two women training as lay readers. And it hasn’t just been in terms of ordained or licensed ministry because alongside this has run all sort of other developments in female leadership, not least in regard to evangelism and mission. And the affect within this parish has been really transforming with, to my mind at least, preaching, leading, presiding, evangelism and mission, pastoral care, leadership and the overall atmosphere at this church completely enhanced and enriched. Quite simply Christ Church is a loads better church for having women’s ministry as fully encouraged and expressed as that of men.
And when I’ve sought to reflect theologically upon this I’ve been strongly led back to Genesis and the significance of both the man and the woman being equally created in God’s image and the unique fruitfulness that results from the fullness of this image being displayed and represented through both male and female acting together and in union. Now Jody will be looking at such matters in greater depth later on and may well have a slightly different perspective from me on this. But my understanding of this and is that the re-establishment of that union of male and female together is one the decisive markers of the New Creation and that this is particularly important in terms of the church’s worship because it’s that worship that is meant to be a decisive, present anticipation of that future New Creation. It’s this that, for me, makes sense of the huge enrichment of this church and the explosion of fruitfulness (if that’s not mixing metaphors!) that has happened over the last few years as the full ministry of women has taken its place here alongside the full ministry of men. New Creation in all its exciting forms has been occurring all over the place here and, one the biggest reasons, I believe, is through male and female both being allowed to fully express together in church life that equal stewardship that they have been accorded through being created in the image of God. It’s this that explains the increased richness in the preaching, leading of services, pastoral care, evangelism and mission where it has really felt, to use a musical metaphor, like going from mono to stereo. Mono is OK if you don’t know there’s anything better but have a stereo system and you realise how much better and deeper and richer the music can be.
And it’s in extending these principles that we find, I believe, that really positive vision for women bishops that those of us who believe in this, need to be promoting with all our might. Not just so that we get women bishops but so that we get them in the form they need to be – without the restrictions, in other words, that will stop their ministries being able to flourish as they should and need to if they are going to be fully authentic. And if we consider some of the key roles and functions that Bishops have within the church we then see, I believe, the huge enrichment and enhancement that women bishops will bring and which needs to be part of the positive vision that we spell out.
And here are just a few that occur to me. Firstly Bishops as Symbols
Bishops have a vital symbolic role. We get used to hearing bishops described as symbols of unity but within this is, or should be, an important role as a role model for people to imitate as well. And if women are going to serve God fully within the church rather than outside of it, they need such role models within its leadership. Why do I say this? Because I’ve heard of so many women being inspired to serve God by the example of other women but usually outside of the structures of the church rather than within them. Often as missionaries. I’ve lost count, for instance of the number of women I’ve met who heard Gladys Alyward speak when they were children and were utterly inspired to follow her example. Fantastic and great fruit as a result but so sad that it had to be outside of the church’s structures. And we need women role models within the leadership of church inspiring young girls in a similar way, don’t we? A rather lovely moment for me not long ago was when my then seven year old daughter Abigail announced to me on the way to school that she might one day become a vicar. I was rather taken aback as well as quietly chuffed that my example was so inspiring. But my sails were trimmed a bit when I discussed it later on with my wife Katie and she said that it was probably less to do with my example than that of Helen and Carolyn, the curates here and Abigail seeing their ministries, seeing that it was something that girls could do and wanting to do something similar. Now perhaps you don’t immediately see bishops as inspiring role models. I’d better be careful because we’ve got one here today! But perhaps that’s just the point because they should be, shouldn’t they? Really inspiring beacons of the value of giving yourself to Christian ministry in whatever form. And once we have women bishops, therefore, the symbolic value of Episcopal ministry, not least in bishops becoming genuine symbols of unity, will be dramatically enhanced. That’s one aspect of as positive vision for women bishops that I’m excited about but another is…
Bishops role as Preachers and Teachers I don’t want to be guilty of falling into unhelpful gender stereotypes but I do believe that men and women preach rather differently and when both are allowed full expression the result is an incredibly increased richness in terms of style, content and above all relevance. The old mono to stereo point again! And bishops have, or should have, a vital role in being preachers and teachers and, in particular, a prophetic role in bringing God’s Word directly to those issues that the church and society generally are currently facing. And at the moment we’re not getting the full potential of this prophetic ministry, to be honest for many reasons, but not least because it is currently so one sided and in need of female Christian perspectives which will so strengthen the perception as well as the reality of how engaging and relevant to real life, Christianity is. Female preaching, in my experience, is hardly ever guilty of being too abstract and unrelated to real life and having witnessed women at this church bringing biblical truth right to the heart of real life in a relevant and engaging way, what I’m excited about it seeing this happen on a more national level through the ministry of women bishops. What this country needs is to see and hear about is relevant, life changing Christianity and I believe in women bishops because I believe they will further that cause.
Thirdly… Bishops as Pastors of the Clergy. Bishops are meant, apparently, to be pastors of the clergy. It’s a crucial role and a demanding one and based, once again, on my experience in this parish of seeing pastoral care transformed through the role of ordained women, the pastoral care of clergy is something that I believe will be dramatically transformed as well through the establishment of women bishops. Women, I believe, see plenty of things that men quite often miss as I’m sure is true in reverse but together the bases get covered and, to get back to Genesis and that full image of God, it becomes more fully human. Pastoral care fairly obviously needs to be human, doesn’t it, and pastoral care of our clergy needs that as much as anywhere. And so the gifts and insights and wisdom of women working through Episcopal ministry alongside those of men will, I believe, have a quite dramatic affect upon the morale and well being of our clergy. Clergy need to be encouraged, listened to and loved by their bishops and if this is being done by both men and women it will, in my opinion, be being done much more effectively.
There are other areas I could cover but I’m nearly out of time. Bishops as leaders of mission is another area where, based upon my experience of women’s ministry here, I believe women bishops will make a decisive difference through the imaginative and exciting possibilities that they will be able to envision. I’m also excited about their impact upon the role of Bishops as Collegiate Leaders of the Church. The atmosphere of the House of Bishops needs to change and I would suggest that one of the major problems that has made it rather dysfunctional is its imbalance, to put it mildly, in terms of gender. When subcultures are dominated by a single gender they tend to become rather dysfunctional. It’s usually brought about by male domination of those subcultures but not always. The Staff Room of Primary Schools is one area that can often become rather dysfunctional through being dominated by an overly female subculture. Now this has already been recognised by the decision to have a number of senior women clergy join the meetings of the House of Bishops which should produce significant change. But women need to be there as equals for that change to fully happen and for the House of Bishops to be able to offer that fully rounded collegiate leadership that the church so desperately needs.
I wish that vote had passed on 20th November 2012 and that women bishops were well on their way. But perhaps, and I suggest this only tentatively, the positive vision not being enunciated as clearly as it should have been, meant that we wouldn’t have got women bishops as fully as we need them. That may be wrong – I’m looking for God having a reason why it didn’t happen! But as we continue to work towards that outcome, let’s make sure we do enunciate that positive vision. The male and female acting together in harmony displays the full image of God and has a unique power to bring God’s life transforming New Creation to a world that so badly needs it.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden.