Sunday, November 13, 2022

Where is discrimination against women still allowed in the UK? The church (Op-Ed)

 Chiswick Churches Rev Martine Oborne Vicar

I am the vicar of a wonderful church in west London and love my work. My parishioners are a fabulously diverse group of people and they all recognise me as a priest and vicar. 

Most are unaware that some other churches would not accept me, just because I am a woman.

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the measure being passed which would allow women to be admitted into the Church of England priesthood, I celebrate the much greater range of positions that women now hold in the church, including senior roles. I could just choose to ignore the discrimination that remains. 

But it pains me to see some churches advertise for a new vicar and only accept applications from men who don’t accept female priests. And some other churches advertise only for a male vicar who doesn’t believe women can be church leaders, like vicars or bishops.

It pains me to see my diocesan bishop, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, being required to delegate authority to the Bishop of Fulham, a “non-ordaining bishop” who does not accept that women can be priests, and to the Bishop of Maidstone, who does not believe women should be church leaders, so that these bishops can oversee churches who share these beliefs. It pains me that some of my clergy colleagues, including bishops, don’t allow women to preach or teach men, and some don’t believe that women clergy can consecrate the sacraments.

On that momentous Wednesday afternoon three decades ago, the General Synod announced that it had finally consented to the admission of women to the priesthood. (Or, to put it more accurately, finally removed the barriers that had prevented God from calling women to a priestly ministry alongside men.) 

Inside the room, the news was met with silence, as members had been told to show respect to dissenters and to keep their response muted. Outside in Dean’s Yard, however, cheers erupted from the hundreds of men and women who had gathered, hoping and praying that the vote would be passed. These courageous individuals were mostly members of MOW (the Movement for the Ordination of Women), which had campaigned for 15 years to get women admitted to the priesthood.

The fight for equality for women in the church was not over. The legislation passed by synod allowed individual churches to vote to refuse a woman as a priest or vicar, and the church went on to create “flying bishops” – bishops who had never ordained a woman – whom clergy and churches could choose to be overseen by. The fear was that, without this provision, dissenting groups within the church, such as traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and Conservative evangelicals, would leave.

From 2014, women could finally become bishops, but legislation was simultaneously introduced that not only continued to allow churches to say no to having female priests and vicars, but also gave them the right to continue to be overseen by male “flying bishops”. Today, female priests make up about 30% of all paid clergy and 28 of our 110 serving bishops are women, although only five are in charge of a diocese.

I think if our sisters from 30 years ago had been able to see how women are still held back and discriminated against in the church, there would have been great disappointment – and a recognition that there is still much to be done today.

The dissenters’ arguments largely boil down to two things: first, that we can’t have female priests because the Roman Catholic church doesn’t allow them; and, second, that God created men to be in charge, and that the Bible attests to this. 

Yet the church’s legislative council, General Synod, came to the conclusion long ago – in 1975 – that there is no fundamental theological basis for women to be prohibited from being priests or bishops. I believe that God created humankind in God’s image, male and female – as we read in the first chapter of Genesis. We do not reflect that image of God when men and women are not equal in the church.

The church says that it wants all women and men to feel equally valued in the church. But how is this possible with the continuing discrimination and lack of transparency about it? Churches that limit women’s ministry rarely say anything about this and, when they do, they use obfuscating jargon, so churchgoers are generally completely in the dark.

You might think the church cannot legally discriminate in some of the ways I have described because of the Equality Act

But the Church of England, alongside other religious organisations, has exemptions under that legislation. These exemptions do not apply to the appointments of those who hold public office, but in 2014 the church got an amendment to the act stating that, for the purposes of the act, bishops – even archbishops – do not hold “public office”. Which is somewhat extraordinary, since 26 of them sit in the House of Lords.

The women and men of MOW did great work back in the 1990s and earlier, and we have so much to thank them for. 

But the work for equality for women in the church is not finished. 

This is why I have recently accepted the role of chair at Watch (Women and the Church), which campaigned for female bishops and is now pressing for transparency about how women’s ministry continues to be limited. 

Personally, I hope and pray that I will one day see the church give up its exemptions from UK equalities legislation and also lament how it has treated women, inside the ministry and out, for so many years.

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