The stained glass ceiling holds

Women bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Bishops. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Women bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Bishops. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published August 31, 2015

(This editorial first appeared in the September issue of the Anglican Journal.)

On June 6, when Mary Irwin-Gibson, the dean and rector of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Kingston, Ont., was elected bishop of the diocese of Montreal, the Anglican Journal published an online story that carried the headline, First woman bishop for Montreal.

Irwin-Gibson’s election was met with what has now become a familiar response among Canadian Anglicans each time a woman becomes bishop anywhere in the world: jubilation on the part of many; disdain from a few still opposed to the ordination of women, let alone the idea of having them wear the mitre.

What was quite unexpected were reactions from some who were offended that the Journal chose to highlight her being the first woman bishop for Montreal, with one reader saying it was “so quaint and oddly sexist.” The comment, which was well-meaning, concluded: “It sounds as if being female is her most important attribute…When will we stop seeing this as a ‘man bites dog’ kind of thing?”

In stories, context is everything. In this case, as one reader noted, “the novelty is regrettable, but it is a novelty; she is, literally, the first.” Irwin-Gibson’s election was historic for the diocese of Montreal because it has never had a woman bishop-in its 165-year history. Even the secular media couldn’t help noting its significance, with CBC News tweeting: Mary Irwin-Gibson has been elected Anglican Bishop of #Montreal. First female in the role.

Highlighting this fact was necessary for other equally important reasons. Irwin-Gibson is only the ninth woman bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, which has had male bishops since 1787. In 1986, the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod passed a resolution allowing the consecration of women as bishops, but it only elected its first woman bishop-Victoria Matthews, as a suffragan, in the diocese of Toronto-in 1993. Today, 22 years later, women constitute only 15% (six out of 39) of the total number of active members in the House of Bishops. It is still a big deal.

Elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, the numbers are more dismal. Of about 700 active bishops across 38 provinces, only 33 (or 5%) are women. The Communion had one female primate (national archbishop) out of 38-that is, until Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, whose election in 2006 was hailed as a breakthrough for women leadership in the church, ended her term this summer. This hardly qualifies as shattering the glass ceiling.

It bears remembering that only nine of the Communion’s 38 provinces have women bishops. The Church of England consecrated its first woman bishop, the Rev. Libby Lane in the diocese of Chester, only in January this year.

The situation of women in church leadership mirrors that of society. In Canada, considered one of the most progressive countries in the world, men are still two or three times more likely than women to hold senior executive posts, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

It is unfortunate and, yes, one longs for the day when neither gender nor race (The Episcopal Church just elected its first African-American primate, Michael Curry, in June) becomes the defining narrative of someone’s achievement. But until equality is achieved, it behooves us not to downplay gains.

The first woman diocesan bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Sue Moxley (ret.), was reminded of this necessity by a young woman who once asked her why she wasn’t wearing her purple (bishop’s) shirt: “I need you to wear it,” said the young woman. “I need to know it is possible.”

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