Closing the gender gap in church leadership

After more than 40 years of women's ordination, women still face disadvantages in reaching high-level positions in church leadership, according to Canon Judy Rois. Photo: delpixel/Shutterstock
Published March 7, 2019

When Canon Judy Rois was a student in the late 1970s, she wanted to take a preaching course. But when she went to sign up, she discovered she wasn’t allowed because she was a woman.

After much lobbying, she recalls, she was let into the class—the only stipulation was, she had to wait until everyone else had entered the room, then sit at the back, so as not to “distract” her male classmates. “I could sit at the back quietly and not say anything and not make any noise, because a man might see me.”

Rois was ordained in 1985 and was the first female vicar of St. James Cathedral in Toronto. She is now executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada, and teaches at Trinity College of the University of Toronto. In 2014, she was named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women by Women’s Executive Network.

Throughout her career in the Anglican Church of Canada, she’s experienced plenty of gender discrimination. People have walked out or shouted things while she was preaching, crossed the church to take communion from a man, even refused last rites from her because she was a woman. Once, a man handed her a piece of paper bearing a quote by Samuel Johnson: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

She still has the quote.

The injustices she experienced in her career were painful and frustrating, but “these things change with time—they change slowly.”

‘Stained glass ceiling’ still exists

“For some people…there’s a belief in the headship of men; that women should be kept silent in church,” says Canon Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada. Photo: Genevieve Caron

The Anglican Church of Canada approved the ordination of women in 1975, but a conscience clause meant bishops could choose not to ordain women in their dioceses. This clause was rescinded in 1986. The first woman bishop in Canada was elected almost two decades after the first women were ordained, in 1993.

In 2016, after 40 years of ordination to the priesthood for women, approximately 30% of all bishops in Canada were female, according to Rois’s research. Worldwide, 6.8% of Anglican bishops were women. In 2018, Canada’s first and second female archbishops were elected.

Despite this progress, women still face disadvantages in reaching high-level positions in church leadership, says Rois.

Rois has worked with colleague Alex Faseruk, professor in the faculty of business administration at Memorial University, and Daphne Rixon, associate professor at the Sobey School of Business of Saint Mary’s University, to write several papers examining the glass ceiling effect and how it applies to the church.

A “glass ceiling” refers to the inability of women in corporate positions to ascend to the same level as their male counterparts; despite skill, competence and education, a woman may be passed over for promotions or receive less pay than male colleagues.

In the church, Rois identifies two main causes of what she terms the “stained glass ceiling.” One is “decades of social and gender norms that hinder female involvement outside the confines of their home,” says Rois. These norms can lead to beliefs that women are “too emotional” to lead, or that women won’t be dependable in their jobs because of their responsibilities as primary caregivers in the home.

Another cause, specific to the church, is the pervasiveness of certain understandings of Scripture. “For some people…there’s a belief in the headship of men, that women should be kept silent in church,” says Rois.

“People also say that Jesus chose 12 male disciples, despite the fact that there were many women in the early church [who] were very involved in discipling,” Rois says.

Addressing unconscious bias, “social stereotypes about individuals or groups…that form outside [of] conscious awareness,” is an important step to removing the stained glass ceiling, says Rois.

In her classrooms, Rois requires students to use gender-neutral language rather than words like “mankind.” Other shifts in thinking can help break down unconscious bias, such as choosing gender-neutral social activities. Men can also take on more duties in the home and speak more clearly about their work-life balance to shift the perception that these duties are solely women’s responsibility, she suggests, noting that men are increasingly taking parental leave after the birth of their children. She also says there should be less focus on what women wear and look like, both in and outside of the church.

Shaped by ‘dominant culture’

“Even though I think I had, early on, a call to ordained ministry, I couldn’t recognize it for what it was, because it was impossible and foreign,” says Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Photo: Ebonie Klassen Photography

“The dominant culture shapes our understanding,” says National Bishop Susan Johnson. Johnson is the first woman to be elected national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). But it took her a long time to recognize her vocation.

“I grew up in a church that didn’t ordain women. Even though I think I had, very early on, a call to ordained ministry, I couldn’t recognize it for what it was, because it was impossible and foreign,” she says.

While she was glad for the skills she learned in her first career, as a high school music teacher, “over time, God got loud, in my head and through the voices of other people around me.”

Johnson says she was lucky to have a female internship supervisor when she was in seminary. “That was so helpful to me in just allowing myself to fully be a woman considering ministry…Just helped me get over those last bumps and hurdles I was still carrying internally.”

When Rois first started in ministry, there were very few examples of how to be a woman in a leadership position in the church, she recalls. Bishop Victoria Matthews, who became the first woman elected bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1993, and the Rev. Ansley Tucker, now dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, B.C., were her mentors.

“They were my primary role models of how to dress, how to act. The only models we had were men, so we all tried to dress like men,” she recalls, noting that she made sure to wear black, very little jewellery and make-up, and no coloured nail polish. “Nothing that somebody could criticize.”

In any field, Rois says, “If there’s women who have gone before you, you can learn from them. There are a lot of women who paved the way well before me. Mentoring, I think, is hugely important. And we do stand on each other’s shoulders, really.”

First female metropolitan elected in Canada

“A diversity of gender–and not just men and women, but different ways people identify–is really important,” says Archbishop Melissa Skelton, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon. Photo: Bayne Stanley

Archbishop Melissa Skelton, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon, has seen this phenomenon firsthand. Since being elected Canada’s first female archbishop in May 2018—and the second female archbishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion—she has seen an “outpouring” of thanks from young women. “It has been very significant for them to see that a woman would be that prominent.”

When Skelton, who was born and raised in the United States, was first ordained in The Episcopal Church, women in leadership positions were a novelty. “Many parishes wanted to have the exotic female assistant.”

Skelton sees the importance of providing the mentorship and support that were not available in the past. “The experience of many women…is that there isn’t a sufficient network of supportive women to assist them and encourage them to explore the next level of responsibility.”

Skelton says she has had wonderful male mentors, and was encouraged to run for bishop by a man. “But it’s different when women sit together and talk about…the complexities—how does family life go with leadership, what out of their own background has prepared them for this or what immobilizes them around this, what practically needs to happen, how to prepare the materials.”

Towards this end, Skelton is helping to organize Leading Women, a conference for women in the Anglican Church of Canada and the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which will take place in Chicago in October 2019.

“My own upbringing prepared me to be a helpful second in command…It did not prepare me for being the person who is up front, takes the heat, makes the decisions,” says Skelton. “So I personally had to break through that barrier…But I tell you, I reached a point where I had to do that—I could not do the other thing anymore.”

Breaking stereotypes

Seeing women succeed in leadership can help break down stereotypes.

“Often for people opening up to any new idea, it’s a matter of experience,” says Johnson. She remembers serving as an assistant to the bishop in the Eastern Synod in the 1990s. At the time congregations with a vacancy who were looking for a pastor would frequently request a man. “The bishop I was working with at the time would then always send me to work with that congregation,” Johnson laughs.

“It’s about personal understanding and experience that adds a different dimension, and sometimes demythologizes and challenges stereotypes.”

While there is no guaranteed strategy to break down glass ceilings, Rois says, there are things that can be done. “We need to keep looking at more women as bishops, primates, deans—as women in positions of influence. We need to also provide good daycare for men and women who have children, good working hours…that allow men and women to care for their families in equal ways.”

Skelton believes that “a diversity of gender—and not just to say men and women, but different ways people identify—is really important.” As bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, she has considered the ethnic and gender diversity of her diocese when making appointments.

Johnson agrees. “I think it’s important to have a variety of leadership, not just male-female, but broader understandings as well, not just of gender but of many other capacities, so that we represent not only the full membership of the church that we’re called to serve, but the world into which God has called us in mission,” she says.

Seeing someone you identify with in a position of leadership can be a huge encouragement, she adds. “If we’re serious about trying to say that this is God’s church, then shouldn’t we look like God’s people?”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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