Where are the next examples of women in leadership?

By on September 4, 2007

The news came as a complete surprise to many church observers: Victoria Matthews, the bishop of Edmonton and the first woman to be elected to the Canadian episcopate, announced she was resigning as diocesan bishop, effective Nov. 30.

The media, including the Anglican Journal (on its Web site), gave the story prominent play. The news was reported locally, across Canada, in newspapers and on Web sites throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. One newswire story erroneously reported that Bishop Matthews was, “the first and only female bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada,” an error that was repeated by many news organizations.

Of course, she is not the only female bishop in the Canadian church; elected in 2003, Sue Moxley is the suffragan (assistant) bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Earlier, in 1997, Ann Tottenham became the second woman elected as bishop (she retired in 2005 as suffragan bishop of Toronto).

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But, that said, the numbers are still not very encouraging. By the end of this year, Bishop Moxley may be the only active female bishop in the Canadian house of bishops. (There are episcopal elections scheduled this fall for the dioceses of Quebec and Nova Scotia/P.E.I.) That is one in 40 bishops.

Indeed, episcopal elections in some dioceses in recent years have come and gone without even one woman’s name on the ballot. Are diocesan search committees unable to find qualified candidates? Is the church’s leadership model biased toward men, especially white men? Or do the women, when approached, simply shy away from the prospect of leading their church in a different way?

Elsewhere in this paper is the news of the appointment of Sharon Murdoch as rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Timmins, Ont., and dean of the diocese of Moosonee. Deans are among the senior clergy in their dioceses; in some areas, the appointment as dean is seen as a stepping stone at least to being included on the ballot for episcopal elections. Ms. Murdoch is only the third woman ever to reach the position of dean in the Canadian church.

All of these statistics lead up to one question: more than 30 years after the Anglican Church of Canada first ordained women to the priesthood why are there still so few women in senior leadership roles and seats of power in the church?

Earlier in this decade, around the 25th anniversary of the first ordinations of female priests, Bishop Tottenham mused about the so-called “stained-glass ceiling” in the church: “It’s the same in all the professions. There is still a whole issue of acceptance,” she said, referring to the often-intangible barriers getting to the top jobs in the church.

According to 2007 statistics kept by the national church’s information systems department , 24 per cent (1,010 out of 3,879) of active Anglican clergy in Canada are women. That is an increase from seven years ago, when 16 per cent of clergy were women.

In 2001, Bishop Matthews herself noted that demographics were an issue, since few women were priested in the five years after the first ordinations of women; it therefore took many years to produce a pool of long-serving, qualified female priests who could step into leadership roles.

Of course there are signs of hope, including the obvious fact that Bishop Matthews was not only a candidate in the June primatial election, but she was a serious contender. There was not even a whisper that her presence on the ballot was tokenism. Her qualifications were solid: she served as chair of both the Primate’s Theological Commission and the house of bishops’ task force examining alternative episcopal oversight for dissenting parishes; she was also a member of the Book of Alternative Services evaluation commission and the planning group for the 1998 Lambeth meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops. Without a doubt, her candidacy was a serious one and the close results of the election – Archbishop Fred Hiltz was elected by a slim margin on the fifth ballot – should demonstrate that it is not unimaginable for a woman to assume the most senior position in the church.

Now that Bishop Matthews has announced her intention to step down as diocesan bishop, the church has some work to do in examining how her years of ministry can benefit other women and the church at large. She gave the church one example of how a woman can lead; may it find more in the near future.

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