Progress, pushback and clergy women

January 27th, 2015

Yesterday, in a momentous occasion, the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop, The Reverend Libby Lane, now Bishop of Stockport. This event was made possible by a vote this past July in which the Church of England voted to allow women bishops, even though women have been serving as priests in the Church of England since 1994.

As a priest in the Episcopal Church here in the United States, I have never known a world in which I could not be ordained. The first female bishop in the Episcopal Church was consecrated when I was only five years old. Symbolically, however, the Church of England remains the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church (USA) is a part, so it is with much rejoicing and eagerness that I and other proponents of gender equality in all aspects of ordained ministry welcome this consecration.

However, the consecration of Bishop Lane has not been without controversy. During the service, a lone voice protested the consecration, shouting that it was “not in the Bible.” Additionally, there continues to be debate involving the subsequent consecration of the Reverend Philip North as Bishop of Burnley. As reported in Christian Today, no bishops who have consecrated or ordained women priests or bishops will lay hands on the Reverend North, preserving a “true” line of apostolic succession free of female “taint." 

For those with knowledge of church history, this argument recalls the Donatist Controversy of the fourth century, in which clergy who had recanted their faith during the Diocletian persecutions were deemed ineligible to perform the sacraments, and those sacraments that the lapsed clergy had performed were invalid, leading to people seeking a second baptism.

The Church came down on the side of Augustine of Hippo who argued that, rather than requiring a priest of absolute pure moral character, the Church derived its holiness from its Head, Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, many practicing “traditionalist” Anglicans would prefer a bishop who has not been tainted by association with the ordination or consecration of women clergy.

While my experience with opposition to women clergy has not been nearly as fierce or as overt as that expressed over the consecration of the Reverend Lane, in many ways, the so-called “stained-glass ceiling” is still a present reality for women clergy. Women clergy are more likely to serve as associate priests rather than rectors or in positions where they receive part-time compensation. They are also more likely to practice their calling in non-parochial positions like school or hospital chaplaincy. This has little to do with qualifications or giftedness and much to do with leadership, particularly of larger churches, being viewed as a predominantly male attribute. Throughout their careers, many women clergy are told that they just don’t look or sound like a priest or pastor.

Personally, I am extremely blessed to serve a small, Southern congregation who has embraced me for who I am and who enjoy the shock on their friends’ faces when they introduce a young woman as their priest and pastor. But it gets tiring to constantly reassure people calling on the phone and showing up to the church for assistance that, yes, I am the priest. At the end of celebrating a large funeral, one gentleman informed me, “I’ve never had a woman preacher before, but you did a really good job!”

Reading Sarah Sentilles’ book “A Church of Her Own: What Happens When A Woman Takes the Pulpit” during my first year of ordained ministry helped me to know that I was not alone in my perception of some of the struggles I faced as a woman in ministry. Additionally, my colleagues around the world in The Young Clergy Women’s Project have offered me great support and comfort. Together we help one another live out our God-given callings in the face of myriad challenges, ranging from raising children to dealing with difficult lay leadership to overt sexism from superiors, while also celebrating one another’s successes.

Bishop Lane’s consecration was probably neither the first time nor will it be the last time she encounters resistance to her ministry due to her gender, and it can be lonely at the top. May she know that she is not alone, that God has called her to this role at this time for God’s glory and that her clergy sisters stand beside her in faith and prayer.

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