Why women bishops?

July 31st, 2015

A confluence of conversations, anniversaries, and events led me to reflect on women serving as bishops. First of all, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, our triennial denominational meeting, took place several weeks ago. As many people noted, women are poorly represented in the House of Bishops — less than ten percent, even more than forty years after women’s ordination.

Second, the one-year celebration of the Church of England decree that women could be bishops. Since then, six female bishops have been chosen in the Church of England, a different procedure than the selection of bishops in the Episcopal Church (USA).

And third, a grass-roots organization of Episcopal women clergy formed on Facebook with the goal of more women in leadership positions in large parishes and on the diocesan level called Breaking the Episcopal Glass Ceiling.

The question that requires discernment and discussion is: Why? Certainly, equality for equality’s sake is a good goal. Anecdotally, there are reports that women candidates are included more regularly for nomination to the episcopate, and yet, for the most part, they are not being elected. Perhaps we have a tendency to include women (or other under-represented minority) candidates without seeing them as “real” candidates solely for the purpose of patting ourselves on the back for being open-minded and diverse.

However, the best argument for electing and calling more women and under-represented minorities to the highest positions in the church is so that we can disrupt the patriarchal and racist systems within the church and move closer to emulating the Kingdom of God in this world. For if we just replace male bodies with female bodies in the same system, ultimately nothing substantive changes.

Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan, uses mathematical modeling to show that variety and diversity in staffing has a positive effect on organizational strength. Diverse groups of people look at problems differently and have the ability to work together to solve problems faster and better. If we consider that the church, particularly those of us in mainline or “legacy” denominations, is facing some very challenging problems, why would we not want to leverage diversity in our leadership in this way?

In another interview with NPR reporter Gene Demby, Page discusses this issue of “how many is enough.” If an organization includes a token female or a token person of ethnic or racial diversity, most often he or she will not feel comfortable speaking up and letting his or her thoughts be known. On the surface, the group might appear to be diverse, but if it does not include the experiences or viewpoints of those who most need to be heard from, this diversity is all for naught.

So why have more women bishops or district superintendents or rectors and senior pastors of large, corporate-sized churches? Because it just might change the culture of the church for the better, for both men and women. Perhaps women might insist on a more collaborative style of leadership instead of the traditional top-down, father-knows-best model. Women brought up the issue of parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a child at General Convention, fighting for a better church-family balance for all clergy.

Jemima Thockray, writing for The Telegraph, hopes that the Church of England will have more “gobby” women bishops, a term for people who talk loudly or in a blunt and opinionated way. She points out that most of the women currently selected as bishops are not likely to rock the boat, even if rocking the boat is what the church needs the most. Her hope is that, in their role as bishop, they “harness their peculiarity as women to bring some much needed agitation to a Church that’s in desperate need of change.” May it be so Church-wide. 

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