Women bishops warmly welcomed

Published September 1, 1998


One of the great ironies of Lambeth 1998 is that the supposed stumbling block of women bishops failed to materialize.

Right up to the conference, stories appeared in newspapers talking about the “Lambeth walk” and how there would be a visible split in the church. It didn’t happen.

Few, if any, bishops refused to come solely because of the presence of the 11 women and although one bishop refused to be in the official photograph, he found himself at another time alone with one of the women, waiting for a meeting to start.

‘Let’s talk to each other; not talking in different rooms and them emerge to shout at each other.’

—Victoria Matthews, Bishop of Edmonton, referring to opponents of the ordination of women

Some 20 minutes later, Edmonton’s Victoria Matthews and Sodor and Man’s Noel Jones were having a deep discussion about reception of women.

All the women said they were warmly received and treated respectfully, even by some of their staunchest opponents.

Reflecting on Lambeth near the end of the conference, Bishop Matthews said the meeting had changed her.

“I met the suffering church here.”

She spoke about meeting people who lived in difficult situations, such as a Sudanese bishop who had endured 30 years of poverty and civil war with fundamentalist Muslims.

Some of the stories just “break your heart.” And she said she marvelled at the ability of people to “do extraordinary things out of nothing.”

“That has changed me.”

Bishop Ann Tottenham, who replaced Bishop Matthews in the Mississauga area of Toronto called Credit Valley, said Lambeth helped her to learn not to stereotype people.

She said two African bishops held different views on some of the major questions and “that helped me bring it into reality.”

She said she wondered what it would be like if there was more female input into the conference, noting that “the whole resolution and report” style was the least helpful part of the conference.

Debating resolutions emphasize the differences, “forcing people to take sides they don’t want to take,” she said.

“It’s still a very English thing.”

But she said many British bishops went out of their way to welcome the women.

Her coming to Lambeth as a bishop also had an unusual family connection.

In Britain, she is properly addressed as the Rt. Rev. Lady Ann Tottenham, being the daughter of the Marquess of Ely.

Her father, Charles, is a Canadian and spends most of his time at home in Ontario. But her father’s title comes through the former bishop of Clogher in Ireland, Rt. Rev. Lord Robert Posonby Tottenham.

As it happened, her father was unwell during part of the conference and Bishop Tottenham said the gift from Trinity, Wall Street, providing e-mail service to all the bishops so they could keep in touch with their diocese and family was “enormously important to me.”

Both bishops spoke about the privilege of coming to Lambeth.

Bishop Matthews said she was “extremely nervous” about coming but she said the experience was “extraordinarily positive” and “unbelieveably valuable.”

She said it also helped her put parts of church life in perspective.

“I think about the acrimony at General Synod,” especially about the liturgies. She said at Lambeth, there was a different liturgy for the eucharist every day.

“The diversity is incredible.” But she said at no time would anyone have said it was not the eucharist.

Recalling the arguments at General Synod from “urgent, panicked voices” that the prayers were not what they must be, she’d like to say, “lift your head.”

She said in a snapshot of the world, even Toronto is pretty monochrome.

Bishop Matthews had a number of discussions with conservatives at Lambeth, especially regarding the resolution about not forcing opponents to women’s ordination to accept it.

Of her discussions with conservative bishops she said, “We’ve got to find ways of working together.

“Let’s talk to each other; not talking in different rooms and then emerge to shout at each other.”

Bishop Tottenham apparently won over an opponent. She said there was a point in the Bible study when she burst into tears over a passage and Archbishop David Gitari of Nairobi said he had never seen a bishop cry before. “I’m now in favour of ordaining women to the episcopate,” he said.

It’s that kind of encounter that makes Lambeth important, said Bishop Matthews. “We have so much to learn from each other.”

“We operate out of limitless assumptions.”

“I hope to go home with a degree of humility; needing to know about others in the communion.”


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