Women’s ordained ministry has not stemmed CofE decline
In Westminster Hall this week the Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP led a short debate on the role and contribution of women to the ordained ministry of the Church of England. The debate celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the first women as priests in the CofE and looked ahead, both to the ongoing process to legislate for female bishops, as well as enabling them to sit in the House of Lords without delay.
Sir Tony Baldry MP responded in his capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, and contributions were made by Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP, Sir Peter Bottomley MP and Helen Goodman MP. The Equalities Minister Helen Grant MP was also present to hear the speeches. Sir Tony’s speech is reproduced in full below:
The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) for initiating the debate and providing the House with an opportunity to celebrate the contribution over the past 20 years of ordained women clergy to the Church of England. I also thank her for providing me with an opportunity to advise the House on where the Church of England now stands in respect of women bishops, which I shall do later. We are all grateful for the presence and support during the debate of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).
Sir Peter Bottomley: If you will allow me, Mrs Brooke, I wish to apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I meant to rise to catch your eye after she had, and I apologise for jumping up when I did. If she had spoken, three men and three women would have spoken in the debate, which would have been the perfect balance.
Sir Tony Baldry: That is a timely intervention. For anyone reading the debate in Hansard, I should explain that, although I am effectively responding to the debate, I am not a member of the Government. I am by statute appointed by the Crown as Second Church Estates Commissioner, so I am accountable neither to the Government nor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, as the Bishop of London pointed out to me shortly after I was appointed, I am, like the Dean of Westminster, accountable only to God and the Queen—that is how he put it. This is not a ministerial response, then, but one I make in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was absolutely right to say that the ordination of women has unleashed an appetite in other women to come forward for ordination. She was also right to set out some of the many qualitative contributions that women have made to ordained ministry and, indeed, the pivotal role of many women clergy. We were also fortunate this afternoon to have heard some excellent and helpful speeches from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), all of whom are members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the Committee of both Houses that considers Church of England measures when they come to Parliament—as indeed is my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden.
The right hon. Member for Exeter was absolutely right in making clear the urgency and effectiveness with which the Archbishop of Canterbury grasped the issue of making progress towards sorting out the General Synod on the issue of women bishops after its very unhappy vote. The Archbishop clearly recognised that there was a need to get a grip on that issue and get a grip he did.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is going back to Exeter this weekend, and I hope he takes back the good news from yesterday’s Budget that, between all of us, we were able to secure from the Chancellor £20 million towards repair of cathedrals. If I may say so, that indicates that the Church of England is taken seriously by Government. There is a recognition that it is sometimes difficult to raise money to repair the electrics, or the roof or guttering. That fund is meant to be put towards such problems and will be welcome news, I hope, to cathedral cities such as Exeter.
Mr Bradshaw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his letter outlining the details of that fund—it was in my postbag this morning. I congratulate him on the successful lobbying he has clearly conducted with the Government to deliver that support.
Sir Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those comments. It was a team effort. We also have to thank Lord Cormack in the other place, who brought all the deans together, who then made their views known to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). In due course, he made his views known to the Treasury. It was a good example, as so often happens in this place, of the House working across parties consensually and collaboratively to secure a result that we all wanted to see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West, who is the church warden of St Margaret’s, was absolutely right in his comments that we all now see women priests as normal and natural, and that we all hope to see a situation in which women as bishops will equally be seen as normal and natural.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who has been a great supporter of women in the Church, appropriately made the point that the best realisation of the hopes of all those who had supported the ordination of women priests, way back when she had done so in the 1980s and earlier, is the work that women priests are now doing in our parishes.
On 11 November 1992, the General Synod passed the measure that would enable women to become priests in the Church of England. That measure then received parliamentary approval in both Houses in 1993 and it received Royal Assent on 5 November 1993. On 12 March 1994, at Bristol cathedral, the first 32 women were ordained as priests to minister to the cure of souls in the Church of England. It had been possible for women to be ordained as deacons in the Church of England since 1986, but it was not until 1992 that the General Synod was able to agree the measure necessary to enable women to be ordained as priests. Since then, some 4,200 women have been ordained as priests.
Today, some 23%, or nearly a quarter, of stipendiary ministers—full-time paid clergy—are women. Just over half, or 53%, of self-supporting ministers are women. At present, some 1,245 people in England are training to become Anglican priests and of those, 594, or 48%, are women.
Therefore, it can be seen that over the past 20 years women clergy have played an important part in the life of the Church and of our nation’s life, and over the coming 20 years, I anticipate that the proportion of clergy who are women will grow. With the exception of women as bishops, which I shall say a little more on shortly, women already make a much valued contribution to every part of the Church.
There are now five women deans of cathedrals—in Birmingham, St Edmundsbury, Salisbury, Guildford and York—and of course, as has been said, Canon Jane Hedges, one of the canons whom we know well from her work at Westminster abbey, will shortly be leaving to become dean of Norwich. There are 16 women archdeacons and 51 women in the House of Clergy, where they make up 27.5% of the House of Clergy. One finds women as stipendiary canons in 16 of the 44 cathedrals and women clergy as chaplains in hospitals, hospices, prisons, schools and universities. As we know well in this House, we are fortunate to have a woman as the Speaker’s Chaplain—Rose Hudson-Wilkin. In the armed forces, four women are serving as padres or chaplains, and of those appointed as honorary chaplains to the Queen, seven are women.
Mr Bradshaw: On the Speaker’s Chaplain, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Speaker deserves a lot of congratulation for making that appointment? It was greeted terribly by some Conservative forces in the media at the time, and she has turned out to be the most fantastic chaplain to this House.
Sir Tony Baldry: Yes. I entirely endorse those comments and I think that the House would feel that the Speaker’s Chaplain has done what hopefully chaplains do in every institution. As part of the Church of England, the national Church, they are chaplains to everyone involved in the institution. Rose Hudson-Wilkin has made, and is very much making, the Speaker’s Chaplaincy a chaplaincy for everyone working in the Palace of Westminster. We all saw that particularly when—I think for the first time probably since the Reformation, or indeed ever—the Archbishop of Canterbury came to take holy communion in the Crypt Chapel on Ash Wednesday, and people were present from both Houses and from every walk of life in which people work and serve in Westminster. One felt that this was a community coming together to worship.
Women priests are now involved in every part and aspect of the Church’s life, from Lambeth palace where two of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s close team are women priests, to parish priests up and down the country. As time goes on, I think everyone expects that the proportion of women as cathedral deans and archdeacons will grow.
On Saturday 3 May, to mark and celebrate the 20th anniversary of women as clergy, there will be a gathering of ordained women clergy and others at Westminster abbey in the morning, followed by a procession to St Paul’s cathedral, where there will be a service of celebration for 20 years of women’s ordained ministry. I know that many similar services are planned across the country. For example, on 7 June, the diocese of Oxford—the diocese in which my constituency is situated—is holding a service of celebration in Christchurch.
The diocese of Oxford has always had a strong record of ordaining women, starting with 67 women who were ordained in six separate services in 1994. Of those 67 women who were ordained priests in Oxford 20 years ago, nine are still in active ministry in the diocese and many more, although formally retired, still hold permission to preach and are continuing to support parishes.
Among those first women priests still working full time in the diocese of Oxford, we have a school chaplain, an area dean, who has just been appointed our newest archdeacon, a university college chaplain, and priests in rural and urban parishes. Of the four archdeacons in the diocese of Oxford, three are women, and the diocese has seen women ordained in every sphere of ministry. There are ordained women on the staff of all three theological colleges in the diocese. The military bases in the diocese have had women chaplains, as have prisons and detention centres.
From those first 67 women ordained 20 years ago, there are now more than 250 ordained women currently ministering in the diocese of Oxford, and I am glad to say that many more are coming forward to offer themselves for priestly ministry. Every diocese could tell a similar story of the achievement of women over the past 20 years in ordained ministry. It is appropriate to reflect not only on the significant quantitative contribution over the past 20 years that women have made to ordained ministry, but on the qualitative contributions that women in ordained ministry have made to the life and work of the Church.
It is also important to recognise that there are still challenges. For example, there are still relatively few young women offering themselves for ordination—those coming straight from university—and a significant number of the current women priests are self-supporting; in other words, they are non-stipendiary.
In anticipation of this debate, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, I wrote to several people asking them whether they felt there were observations I should include in the debate, and one of them was the Speaker’s Chaplain. Rose Hudson-Wilkin made the following observations, and as she is our chaplain, I think they are worth sharing with the House:
“As we go forward, the Church must stop leaving women to feel ‘second best’; We are not tainted and the Church leadership must ensure that they do not embed a theology of taint in their keen desire to embrace all. Women must not suddenly become the scapegoat for all the ills of the Church (e.g. talk of the ‘feminisation of the church’. When we were all male leadership, the numbers of women were still higher than men).
We should not be talking of ‘fast forwarding women’—the reality is that if some of these women had been men, they would have been in senior roles! The Church of England needs to embrace the gifts that men and women bring as the future flourishing of the Church depends on this. All dioceses should look at their senior management team and begin to ask questions about what is preventing women from being included…As a Church, we must embrace unconditionally, the reality that women in Leadership is with us to stay (we should not be using the language of discernment)…I am aware of women who go to challenging parishes with very few people and through sheer dedication and the work of the Holy Spirit, make a difference.”
Not surprisingly, those supportive of women’s ordained ministry have for a long time been supportive of women being consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. As the House will know, this has been a long process, with much debate in the Church and in the General Synod. The process has not been without its setbacks and disappointments for those supportive of women being consecrated as bishops in the Church of England, particularly in the General Synod last November, when the appropriate Measure failed by a very small number of votes in the House of Laity.
Following that, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited Canon David Porter of Coventry cathedral to involve, in a process of dialogue and mediation, various groups in the Church that were concerned about both the theology and the practicalities of women being consecrated as bishops. I would hope that in that process of dialogue and mediation, the concerns of every group, including WATCH and others, were listened to and considered and that efforts were made to resolve them. It resulted in the bringing forward of a much simpler, four-clause Measure, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the General Synod at its recent February meeting.
The General Synod also agreed that dioceses should have three months in which to decide and report their views on the new Measure. So far, 13 dioceses have met and voted on the new Measure. All have overwhelmingly endorsed the new Measure. Indeed, in the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, there was not a single vote against the Measure in any of the houses of the diocese.
Last time, 42 out of 44 dioceses supported the Measure. This time, for practical reasons, it will not be possible for the diocese in Europe to meet in time, but if the majority of the dioceses do support the Measure, it will return to the General Synod in July. I hope that if at that General Synod the Measure succeeds in obtaining two-thirds support in each of the three Houses—the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity—the Measure can be referred to the Ecclesiastical Committee of both Houses as soon as possible. I am sure that that Committee will want to meet as speedily as possible if and when a Measure comes before it and I hope that, if it finds the Measure expedient and approves it, the Measure can then go before each House separately for approval. Every indication that I have had from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons is that the House will do everything to make proper provision for a debate that is as timely as possible when the time arises. I hope that in way we can have the Measure fully and properly considered, approved and passed into law well before Christmas and that we will see the first women bishops consecrated shortly thereafter.
Right hon. and hon. Members have asked about the situation of women in the House of Lords. This House will not be surprised to learn that I have been discussing that issue with the Leader of the House of Lords and the Leader of the House of Commons. Of course, the position of bishops in the House of Lords—the Lords Spiritual—is that they are Members of the House of Lords. It is therefore a question of who is summoned to Parliament. It is not something that can simply be resolved by a Measure of the General Synod; it will require primary legislation. However, I think that it would be fair for me to summarise the position of the Government, as I understand it, thus. In terms of primary legislation, they will seek to facilitate as speedily as possible what the Church of England feels would be most appropriate in these circumstances. I think that discussions are now taking place within the Church of England. I understand that the Lord Bishop of Leicester, who convenes the Lords Spiritual, is in negotiations with various groups to give some thought to how best that can be achieved.
People have to understand that there are suffragan bishops and there are diocesan bishops. Not all the diocesan bishops sit in the House of Lords; some do so on the basis of seniority. Several issues need to be considered, but I am confident that as and when the Church of England comes forward with a proposal, the Government will give it the most serious and positive consideration.
Helen Goodman: If and when the proposal is made, Her Majesty’s Opposition will be as co-operative as possible in expediting it.
Sir Tony Baldry: That is a very helpful intervention because by definition, given the parliamentary timetable, it is likely to come towards the end of this Parliament and, as all those of us who have been here for some time know, the usual channels, for understandable reasons, tend to get a bit jumpy as we move towards Parliament being prorogued and so on. However, I think that everyone—including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who at Prime Minister’s questions made this very clear—wants the consecration of women as bishops to happen at the earliest possible moment and does not want that to be in some way overshadowed by acrimony or a debate about their not being properly represented in the House of Lords.
I make no pretence of seeking to be a theologian, but I have always been struck by the observation of St Paul that “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain”.
The resurrection is central and crucial to Christianity, and at the time of the crucifixion, the disciples, for understandable reasons, had fled. It was the women who stood witness to Christ’s crucifixion. It was the women who found that the stone was rolled away, and it was to Mary Magdalene that the resurrected Christ first revealed himself.
I quote from the New Testament: “Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.”
The last 20 years have demonstrated that women priests are well able to proclaim the risen Christ throughout the land and, by their ministry, have made and continue to make an enormous contribution to the life of the Church, community and the country. Today’s debate and all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed, from both sides of the House, have demonstrated and confirmed how much women’s ordained ministry is valued and appreciated.
Which is all very nice.
But it hasn't done a thing to stem the decline in weekly church attendance (full stats HERE). Dr Bev Botting, Head of Research and Statistics for the Archbishops’ Council said: “These statistics for 2012 show that weekly attendance over the past decade has not changed significantly."
But they do represent a significant change on attendance in the 1960s. Women's ministry may have brought equality and justice, but it has not - as we were so often assured - heralded renewal or revival.
Baroness and Supreme Court Judge Brenda Hale hasn't put her finger on the absent pulse of the problem, either. The Washington Post reports that she attributes the decline of the Established Church to its being so utterly undemanding: she told a recent conference at Yale Law School: “It has no dietary laws, no dress codes for men or women, and very little that its members can say is actually required of them by way of observance.”
That is a bizarre assertion: freedom from the law does not lead to church decline, corporate shame or spiritual death. Freedom from the law - be it dietary, dress or aggressive notions of equality - leads to knowledge in Christ: a glad response to God's work and the setting aside of idolatrous worldviews (Rom 1:18). The Church does not exist to convey the laws of man, and neither should it be preoccupied with the fads and obsessions of the age. Only when the focus is the Kingdom of God and the eschatological reality of the fulfilled vocation will we witness the Church's freedom to engage in decisive acts of truth-telling, and the individual's freedom to manifest a community of love. Growth will then take care of itself.