Next up: a female Archbishop of Canterbury?

Some 238 people attended the February webinar, at which Canadian bishops were joined by the Anglican Church of Australia’s Archbishop of Perth Kay Goldsworthy. Photo: Screenshot/Zoom
Published March 5, 2024

It’s now ‘entirely thinkable,’ conference hears

Thirty years after Victoria Matthews became the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, has the time come for a woman to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury?

The question arose during “Faithful to the Call,” a Feb. 26 online conference honouring Matthews on the 30th anniversary of her ordination as suffragan bishop of the diocese of Toronto and celebrating women in episcopal ministry. (Matthews later served as bishop of Edmonton and then as bishop of Christchurch in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.)

Toward the end of the webinar, Bishop of Quebec Bruce Myers asked whether the time had arrived for a woman to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury—and what the implications might be.

Some panel members said this time might well be soon.

Matthews recalled how when she attended the 1998 Lambeth Conference as one of only 11 female bishops present, all her male counterparts referred to her as bishop—including those from provinces that did not allow the ordination of women.

“Even if they didn’t approve, there was extraordinary generosity of spirit,” Matthews said. “I think we shouldn’t hold back because some disagree, any more than we’ve held back in the ordination [of women] to priesthood or consecration of bishops.

“To be quite honest, the Archbishop of Canterbury is criticized for being for and against most everything. So don’t hold back. The time is nigh.”

Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said there was no shortage of possible female candidates.

“I think that there are women ready and willing and able to step into that role,” the primate said. “I would think it’s a more question of, is the Church of England ready to do this and to take this step?”

Archbishop of Perth Kay Goldsworthy (who was also the first woman archbishop in the Anglican Church of Australia) said the role as well as the “circumstance/situation” of the next Archbishop of Canterbury was now being discussed at the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. “That a woman might embody that, I think, is entirely thinkable in so many ways,” she added.

Female bishops gather at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Photo: ACNS/Scott Gunn

The Primates’ Meeting and Anglican Consultative Council are two of the four “Instruments of Communion” that connect Anglicans worldwide. The other two are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference.

In 2022, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to give Anglicans outside the Church of England greater input in choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Under these changes, the Anglican Communion’s representation on the Crown Nominations Committee (CNC) for Canterbury—which previously had 16 voting members—increased from one to five, while members from the diocese of Canterbury were reduced from six to three. The Canterbury CNC now has a total of 17 voting members. New rules also mandate the inclusion of laity and clergy as well as bishops; a balance of women and men, and that at least half of the five Anglican Communion representatives be of “global majority” heritage, meaning Indigenous, African, Asian, or Latin American.

Current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said he plans to stay in the office until he turns 70 in 2026.

A total of 238 people attended the February webinar, which brought together a panel of female bishops that included Matthews; Nicholls; Bishop Riscylla Shaw, suffragan bishop of the diocese of Toronto; and Goldsworthy. Archbishop Anne Germond, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, moderated the discussion.

On the possibility of a female archbishop of Canterbury, Shaw referred to a story Matthews had told in the webinar. Ordained as a deacon in 1979 and as a priest in 1980, Matthews said by the time she was in her early 30s, “I was embarrassed to find people asking if I would let my name stand as bishop.”

“I thought that was absurd,” Matthews said. “I laughed a lot. I did remember that [in] a youth group, a child had asked me, ‘Will there ever be females in the House of Bishops?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, but not in my lifetime.’ Well, things moved a bit faster than I imagined.”

In reflections during the first part of the webinar, each bishop recounted her path to ordained ministry. Matthews, Nicholls and Goldsworthy had all reached adulthood at a time when women could not be ordained as Anglican priests, much less bishops. In each case, their faith drew them to ministry—and eventually to the priesthood after such a vocation became possible for women.

Matthews did not come from a religious family, but said as a teenager she heard a voice while she lay awake in bed, which said, “You are my beloved daughter. I will never leave you or forsake you and you will be my priest.”

“I realized at that moment my life had changed enormously … I also knew I couldn’t tell anyone, because I was a very shy teenager and I would’ve been laughed out of the room,” Matthews said. She started to pray and “read everything I could get my hands on.” But it was only after the Anglican Church of Canada began ordaining women in 1976 that Matthews was able to become ordained herself.

Her path to episcopal office started when then Bishop Arthur Brown, suffragan bishop of the diocese of Toronto, invited Matthews to lunch and said many wanted her to accept a nomination to succeed him as suffragan bishop. Soon after, she attended a conference at Trinity College featuring a presentation by then Bishop of Chicago Frank Griswold.

“Afterwards somebody said, ‘You could be a bishop like Frank. You have to let your name stand.’ She had tears in her eyes and I wasn’t laughing any longer,” Matthews recalled.

During a subsequent hike in the highlands of Scotland, Matthews said, she experienced the only vision from God she had ever received. “It was Jesus on the cross. And he said, ‘I beg your pardon.’ I realized what I was being asked was nothing compared to the one who died that I might live. And I let my name stand” as a candidate for suffragan bishop.

Panel members repeatedly noted the impact of female clergy such as Matthews in serving as role models for younger women contemplating careers in ordained ministry. “I was able to see myself in leadership because of the courageous women on whose shoulders I stand—those who went before me,” Shaw said, referring to all the other bishops on the panel.

Asked whether she felt women leaders are treated with equity in the Anglican Church today in terms of pay and respect, Goldsworthy responded, “Where I live, clergy stipends are clergy stipends and that includes the bishops … There’s a base and that’s how it works. So women are not disadvantaged.”

However, she said more women than men in the church still tend to work in positions that are not full-time—an observation the Canadian bishops nodded to in agreement. Goldsworthy said this may be because many people still presume men to be the main breadwinner in the home.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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