Wed | Dec 7, 2016

Gender equality in the Church

Published:Sunday | December 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM

The Church of England announced the historic appointment of a female bishop last week, a move that comes after 20 years of intense debate since women priests were first ordained. This is an issue that has caused deep wrangling within the Church of England, which is the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

We imagine that the impending ordination of Rev Elizabeth Lane as Bishop of Stockport, England, will be an unavoidable topic of conversation among Anglicans as they gather in congregations across the United Kingdom and elsewhere at this time of year.

When the 48-year-old parish vicar from Manchester, who has been described as a soccer-loving mother of two, is ordained next month, it will alter the leadership profile of the Anglican Church and mark a turning point for the Church. A woman in a mitre is indeed a rare image, and it is bound to have an impact, be it positive or negative.

For some, Rev Lane's ordination will be seen as marking the end of the Church while others will see it as a fresh start, or the heralding of a new and exciting beginning, which may help to staunch the declining numbers of churchgoers who no longer cram into pews on Sundays.

There is a growing sense that women should take their rightful place in society, within the Church, and all other institutions. Therefore, to some, the Church of England is not really making history with this appointment to the episcopate; rather it is catching up with history. The time has long passed for clerical gender equality.

Indeed, it is a puzzle that while generations of women have been the foot soldiers of the Church, actually forming the backbone of congregations, they were held back from occupying senior positions alongside their male counterparts. Why should the office of bishop and higher not be open to women? In the matter of gender equality, the Church mirrors political organisations where women are the chief organisers but rarely are they elected leaders.

Female bishops

In America, there have been female bishops in the Episcopal Church since 1989, including the consecration of an openly lesbian bishop. There are also women bishops in Australia, Canada, Cuba, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, South Africa, and Swaziland.

When Rev Lane is elevated to this all-male club, many will be looking to her to humanise the Church again, and she has given early warning of how she intends to tackle the job. "I bring all my life experience to my ministry, both as a vicar and a parent and as a wife and a friend. That's all that I can do. I can only be who I am," she has told the news media.

Will this appointment be the glue to help hold the global Anglican Communion of 80 million in 165 countries together?

What of the Catholic Church? Even though there are distinct structural differences between the Catholic and Anglican churches, the question must be asked: Could Rev Lane's appointment embolden progressives to agitate for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church? Many have suggested that it is simply a matter of justice and equality that women be ordained as priests. The liberal-thinking Pope Francis, although declaring that the Catholic Church will not change its position on the inadmissibility of women priests, has been talking about expanding the ministry of women without giving any specifics.

Going forward, the Church has some tough issues to confront, one of the most divisive being that of human sexuality. Indeed, while liberals in America are tolerant of same-sex marriages and homosexual clergy, in Africa, the Church has supported harsh anti-homosexual laws. How this issue is handled will determine whether the Church experiences an upsurge in interest and influence or simply continues its traditional job of marrying, baptising, and burying the dead.