Women bishops gain wider acceptance

By on September 2, 2008

Canterbury, England
There were still requests from the media to photograph them separately after the official photo session that included all bishops. But other than that, the 18 women bishops who attended the Lambeth Conference were no longer the oddity that they were 10 years ago when they were invited to attend the meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops for the first time.

Although the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate remains controversial in many parts of the Anglican Communion, women bishops interviewed by the Anglican Journal said they have nonetheless been warmly welcomed at the conference. Unlike in 1998 when a bishop or two refused to be photographed next to a woman bishop, things were, well, normal.

“It feels like we are bishops together. Nobody’s making a special thing of women bishops here, although I did experience that in our hospitality time,” said Linda Nicholls, suffragan bishop of Toronto. “In England, it is still a symbol of something new and hopeful for women in the U.K., in a different way than it is in the midst of bishops where we are bishops together.” (Nine days before the start of the conference, the Church of England voted to allow the consecration of women as bishops; see related story, page 14).

Kay Goldsworthy, the Anglican Church of Australia’s first woman bishop, said, “Clearly the communion has done work over the last 10 years.” She said that while “there are certainly people here from various places who give voice to the disagreement over women’s ordination to the priesthood and the episcopate…and every now and again you hear that perspective,” in the main “people have not been aggressive or tried not to listen or shut you out.”

[pullquote]Bishop Goldsworthy would certainly have known what being shut out meant. At her consecration as assistant bishop in Western Australia, 21 Anglican bishops from Australia and New Zealand showed their support by attending the service, but two purposely stayed away – the archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, and the bishop of Northwest Australia, David Mulready.

Victoria Matthews, bishop of the diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand, and former bishop of the diocese of Edmonton, attended the 1998 conference and she said her experience was “very good then and very good now.” That’s not to say that women bishops are now generally accepted. “I’m in a Bible study group with a bishop who doesn’t agree with the ordination of women but we get along fine. Would he accept eucharist from me? No. That doesn’t keep me awake at night. I can be generous.”

Bishop Nicholls added, “There isn’t such a thing as ‘a’ woman bishop, because we’re all different; we have our gifts, we bring our uniqueness to the ministry.”

While their numbers have increased by seven at this year’s conference (there were 11 in 1998), women bishops remain very much a minority – only two per cent of the total bishops present.

“Coming at the opening service here, there are so many spouses (that) you don’t feel like you’re in a different place,” said Bishop Nicholls. “Today (at the bishops’ retreat) it was quite different. I was suddenly in the midst of a very large group of men. Probably the most amusing part is there is no line up in the women’s washroom. You do look around and when the singing starts, you go ‘my goodness is there another woman’s voice here?’ You realize your voice stands out because you’re in a different range. You just notice. But it’s not more unusual than when I was first ordained and there were very few women and you were often in groups where you were the only woman.”

The gender disparity is not limited to Lambeth, according to the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New York, Catherine Roskam, who noted in an Episcopal Life article that councils of the church in many of the provinces in the Communion, and “indeed the so-called Instruments of Communion, are almost exclusively male.” This”stands in stark contrast to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Anglicans – estimates run in excess of 70 per cent – are women.”

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