Women Bishops- does it matter?

A sermon from Rev Louise Boulton

I followed last Monday’s debate in General Synod about women bishops, and much of the material that came up was to me in any case just not very interesting, and I suppose it would be surprising if it were, given that the arguments have been rehearsed so many more times than we care to remember. 

I wondered, however, how I would explain to someone who was not a Christian and even perhaps to some who are Christian but not members of the Church of England why it matters. A friend of mine, often a contrarian and to be fair quite an original thinker said that in the case of women priests, 20 years ago, it was manifestly an injustice that needed to be put right simply on the basis of the numbers involved – across England we have thousands of priests but only a handful of bishops, as that’s how the Church is ordered – but that for the same reason he did not feel the same about women bishops. He also pointed out rightly that it is not as though 
the goal of ordination as priest is that one then eventually is made a bishop.

And then during the debate one of the things that did interest me as an idea in its own right was this statement made by someone opposed to the change, who said that the office of bishop being closed to women has nothing to do with the suffering of women around the world, as those sufferings are caused by sin. 

Let’s take it as read that enormous suffering is caused by the evil that we do. But instinctively I felt that I disagreed profoundly and at a level much deeper than the intellectual, with the first part of what she said, that opening the office of bishop to women and men alike bears no relationship to the suffering and indeed to every part of human experience, of women throughout the world. 

And that would be part of my answer to my contrarian friend – this is why it matters. 

For the Church to be the Body of Christ in the world that Christ loves, the world must be able to see itself in us. Someone else who was called to speak in the debate also gave an answer: she had been a parish priest in Soho, and alongside positive things about that area she spoke about having lived daily with degrading images of women around her; and what we do and how we live as a Church sends signs and messages to women and men alike who face situations and live with circumstances that compromise the image of God in humanity in ways beyond what is ordinary.
I was reminded of being at a concert with my son, it was aimed at older children as a way of introducing them to classical music and towards the end of the performance members of a youth orchestra from east London joined members of the London Symphony Orchestra on stage and played some pieces with them. 

I think there was a fairly even gender mix but what stood out to me was that only
 one of the young people in the orchestra was black and I wondered how easy it would be therefore for a black child in the audience to think, actually to assume without even having consciously to think about it at all, that in a few years’ time she or he could be one of those young people on stage at the Barbican with the LSO. Of course the same question can and should be asked of the Church with regard to ethnic minority levels among all ranks of clergy (and dare I say it, among General Synod itself).

It is, surely, about belonging, and about being accepted, loved, even, unconditionally by the Church. This is why it matters. If in Christ as St Paul said there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female either, then neither should there be any distinction between women and men in canon law. 

This is why it matters – now when a parish has an interregnum as we did in 2012, the PCC will not have to announce to the congregation even in front of two women priests, that it has decided to accept job applications from women.

So today’s reading is apposite. Any junior school child will tell you that to flourish plants, wheat and chaff alike need: light, warmth, food and water.

And as for human flourishing? Catherine of Siena wrote:

the sun hears the fields talking about effort, and the sun smiles
and whispers to me,‘Why don’t the fields just rest, for I am willing
to do everything to help them grow? Rest, my sweet ones, in
prayer. How shall we flourish, grow sweet blossom, bear fruit,
bring forth life, resist evil? Remember that the fruit of the Spirit,
like all fruit, comes without conscious effort. The lilies of the field
do not toil or spin. If we rest in prayer we will flourish.

For centuries in the Church women have been excluded, marginalised, patronised and treated as the cause of sin and corruption. Yet we have contributed to the growth and holiness of the Church in myriad ways.

Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US was asked how she maintained her resilience in the face of any adversity. Her answer: “I know that I am beloved”. 

And now, thanks to generous and dignified listening and careful, prayerful thought, we will be able to know our belovedness still more deeply and more fully, and more deeply and more fully bear Christ to the world. Which is, after all, what we are called to do.