No Prima Donna?

As the Church of England moves towards the formal debate about women in the episcopate there are a number of options for the way forward. This month we examine a compromise proposal: that women should be ordained to the episcopate, but that the office of Archbishop should be restricted to males.

When the subject of the ordination of women as bishops is raised, there is inevitably much talk of glass ceilings. For those whose arguments in favour of women bishops are based on notions of natural justice, any upper limit to female preferment is obviously unacceptable. But even the most doctrinaire among proponents might well be prepared to consider a restriction on female archbishops. The cost would be small, and the advantages might well be great.

There are, of course, two problems which any advocate of women in the episcopate must face from the outset. The first is local and national: how can the innovation go forward without upsetting the delicate arrangements in the Church of England which have thus far enabled a majority of opponents to remain in the Church? The second is international and communion-wide: how, in view of the centrifugal forces now affecting the Communion, can the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares be sustained and possibly extended?

The restriction of the Archbishoprics of Canterbury and York to males would seem to address both these difficulties.

A female Archbishop of Canterbury would undoubtedly add to the problems of the Communion. She would not be able to function as the focus of unity of a Communion in which half the provinces are opposed to women’s ordination; nor would bishops necessarily feel able to accept her invitation to a Lambeth Conference. It has been demonstrated, however, that a male Archbishop, albeit one who favours women’s ordination as priests and bishops, does not present such difficulties.

Within the Church of England the 1993 Act of Synod depends to a large extent on the relationship between the Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the Archbishops whose suffragans they are. Since it would clearly be impossible for a PEV to act as the suffragan of one he supposed not to be a bishop, a female Archbishop would endanger the entire system of provision for those opposed. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated that a male Archbishop, albeit one who favours women’s ordination as priests and bishops, does not present such difficulties.

From the point of view of those in favour of women bishops, therefore, the advantages of restricting the office of Archbishop to men seem far to outweigh the disadvantages. Such an arrangement would allow the immediate appointment of women as diocesan bishops, whilst allowing a further period of settlement, during which opposition would inevitably dwindle. By the time that the appointment of a woman archbishop was procedurally feasible, the restriction might well have been rendered obsolete!

These advantages, however, might prove more apparent than real.

Whilst it is true that the PEVs relate directly as suffragans to the Metropolitan of their province, it is also true that they offer extended episcopal care on behalf of diocesan bishops to whom parishes have addressed petitions under the Act. A female archbishop would certainly threaten their ability to discharge this function. But so would a female diocesan. Nor could PEVs be appointed as assistant bishop under such a diocesan, as is presently the case in many dioceses.

The logic of the 1993 Act, which sought to provide for opponents during an indefinite period of reception, surely requires an increase in those provisions should the degree of communion existing between proponents and opponents be further impaired. The ordination of women as bishops would constitute a massive further impairment. To rely on the role of PEVs merely as roving suffragans of the Metropolitan would be to curtail, rather than to extend, their present function.

Nor is it clear that a male Archbishop heading a Church which had proceeded to consecrate women could easily function as spiritual leader of a communion which remained divided on the issue. Such an Archbishop would remain the principal consecrator of bishops in his province, and would be committed to acting with and alongside colleagues whom other bishops across the communion could not and would not recognize. In a world-wide Church deeply troubled by matters of sexuality and gender, such a state of affairs would almost inevitably lead to further tensions.

It is clear by now that Anglican polity does not lend itself easily to the creation of a unique and overarching role for the Metropolitan. His place is within, rather than over, the College of Bishops of the province. Anglican diocesans are tenacious of their rights and privileges. Female diocesans would not be less so.

As a concession to opponents, in a bid to secure women bishops without further division or acrimony, the restriction of the office of archbishop to males would undoubtedly be seen as too little too late.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.