The Problem at the Heart of the Bishops' Amendments

The Problem at the Heart of the Bishops' Amendments

Fulcrum Perspectives: Women Bishops Legislation

The Problem at the Heart of the Bishops' Amendments

by Stephen Kuhrt

co-published with the Church of England Newspaper 1st July 2012 by permission

Women bishops will, I hope, turn the Church of England completely upside down. My prayer is that its dramatic empowerment of the skills, gifts and insights of women will revitalise the church and change it forever.

As I write this, I can feel waves of anxiety increasing, not just from it opponents but many of those who claim to be its supporters. ‘No, that’s an unhelpful point', many will say, ‘things will carry on much as they have before but with women simply able to exercise a full ministry alongside that of the men’.

But I maintain the point. My experience, in the church of which I am vicar, is that when women’s ministry is allowed to flourish to the full, the entire atmosphere of a church is transformed. Preaching, pastoral care, sacramental ministry, the occasional offices, the nature of services and, above all, the strategy and direction of the local church are all enriched beyond measure. Various practical reasons can be advanced for this. But at a theological level it is because the male and female both being allowed their full role, is bringing about a much deeper reflection of the image of God and a much greater anticipation in our worship of the new creation. It is this that has brought about the transformation within many local churches that have experienced the full ministry of women.

Where such transformation is now most badly needed is within the higher leadership and structures of the Church of England. I am extremely excited about the impact that women bishops will have upon the leadership of Areas and Dioceses where the gifts and talents of women, at last able to have a more strategic impact, will undoubtedly bring a greater humanity and relevance to the face of the church and care of the clergy.

But the change I expect to be most transforming of all is to that of the nature of the House of Bishops. Reinforced by its representation of only one gender, many within this body are hopelessly out of touch with both parishes and clergy and increasingly characterised by what has been accurately termed ‘delusions of adequacy’.

Hence my distraught response to the fact that it is the greatest symptom of the problem that women bishops will address, that has seen fit to amend the legislation in the way that it has. It is bad enough that the amendments have been made at the eleventh hour and fly in the face of the clear will of the elected General Synod. But where the real problem lies is in this group of men deciding to use their power to ensure that women do not become bishops on the same footing as them.

My strong suspicion is that there are factors at work here that go beyond the desire to safeguard the most obvious opponents of the measure. Those in possession of power are usually very intuitive to danger, and the current set of bishops know that there will be far less places for them to hide if women are allowed to join them as equals. Better to allow women in but with areas of vulnerability preserved to keep them beholden to their male colleagues. From this perspective the amendments are less to do with protecting the minority who oppose women bishops (who would be quite adequately covered by a Code of Practice), than trying to ensure that the impact of this development is kept ‘safe’ and away from changing any more than it has to about the status quo.

Should the legislation in its current form be passed by the General Synod in July? It is difficult say. The deep ambivalence that the amended legislation has brought about amongst so many brilliant and dynamic women clergy shows that its impact has already been disastrous. As a collective body, the bishops clearly have no idea of the extent to which they so regularly sap morale amongst the very people they should be doing the most to encourage.

Where it is being exercised in full equality with that of men, women’s ministry is transforming local churches and parishes. Now is the time for this to become just as true within the overall leadership and structures of the Church of England. The real iniquity of political and social conservatism (that is so often the reality underlying theological and ecclesiological conservatism) is that its whole agenda is looking to provide change in a manner which changes as little as possible. Through their amendments, the House of Bishops have, consciously or unconsciously, followed that agenda and a church which could have been enormously blessed if they had done the right thing will now be much less so.


Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and Chair of Fulcrum

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