Women bishops: Presiding Bishop speaks at Westminster Faith Debates

Posted May 27, 2015

Women bishops: what difference does it make?
Westminster Faith Debates
St James’s Church, London
26 May 2015

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Women can bring two distinctive gifts to the episcopacy, and indeed to many forms of leadership. Their presence in leadership expands the image of what it means to be made in the image of God. And women’s awareness and experience of marginalization can motivate compassionate response within the body of Christ. I don’t believe it is helpful to paint with too broad a brush, for the unique gifts of each human being are involved. Some women have no consciousness of marginalization, and many men also do, though from different perspectives.

Let’s begin with Creation.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”… God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.[1]

Women and men are created in the image of God, and both are charged with generativity and stewardship. That word dominion has its roots[2] in the work of housekeeping and husbanding, and even those who live with traditional gender roles agree that both are necessary to the care of the whole garden. Yet part of our fallenness is the desire to assign to one category of humankind the role of being “in charge,” even though we were created at the very beginning to share in caring for the whole community, recognizing that God is the only one truly “in charge.” Dominion is not about power over, but about service.

I spent a week in Salisbury before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, in company with the bishops of Sudan. We had an afternoon Q&A session with parishioners and members of the Diocese, and afterward a man said to me, “We’ll never have women bishops here because no man is willing to obey a woman.” I tried to explain to him that that’s not really the vocation of bishops, and by the way, had he noticed that the head of the Church of England was a woman and had been for some 50 years – and that it wasn’t the first time?

Too often we understand or fear that leadership roles are about the directive or command function. Bishops rarely have to stand up and say, “There’s a fire over there, and we’re all going out that door, NOW!” though when necessary, effective ones can and do say, “Move!” Most bishops spend much of their time listening to the joys and laments of the people in their dioceses – not just the Episcopalians or Anglicans, but all the people. The task of episcopal leadership is to guide and challenge the whole flock to move toward the Reign of God, and given that we haven’t yet arrived at its fullness, that entails change – conversion and transformation. The “dominion” work is about creating a society that reflects God’s intent for peaceable and just relationships everywhere – and there is plenty yet to do.

Perhaps the most primary difference women bishops provide is a witness to the otherness of God. The same can be said of gay bishops, old ones, younger ones, bishops of Asian and African descent, bishops who speak varied languages, short ones and tall ones, and bishops who ride horses or use wheelchairs. White, male, English-speaking bishops with degrees from Oxford or Cambridge are only one sort – they cannot image the fullness of God. When a variety of categories of leaders are called to serve the body of Christ, the incarnate variety of humanity can begin to recognize that it, too, is created in the image of God. It helps us all avoid the unconscious assumption that only a certain kind of human being can have theological insight or lead a group in prayer or build a bridge to an excluded or persecuted group. When leadership begins to represent the variety of human existence, all the baptized people of God can begin to imagine their own ministry, rather than deferring “ministry” to only one sort of human being. And all God’s people begin to realize that they have gifts of leadership in the context of their daily lives.

Beyond the iconic and imaginative role, women bishops can bring their own experience as “outside the norm” into leadership of a community. In much of the world it is still true that women experience marginalization or varying levels of social control in some or most of their life situations. Women leaders who are aware of those varieties of “unfreedom” can bring that conscious representation into the community’s awareness – in service of true gospel freedom for all the least and lost and left out. Community development workers speak about this in more secular contexts as the reality that when women in a community are empowered, particularly in decision-making, the whole community begins to flourish. There are repeated examples in Jesus’ ministry – he speaks to women in public; he teaches and heals the socially marginalized, whether women, lepers, tax collectors, or Gentiles; he welcomes children; and he engages in true conversation, in the sense of spending time that might lead to the kind of healing we call conversion toward the Reign of God, with all sorts and conditions of people.

At the last Lambeth Conference, the bishops and spouses spent a morning speaking about gender and violence. We were segregated by gender. One male bishop wanted to know why, and when told that it was because not everyone in the group felt safe to discuss the issues in mixed-gender groups, he essentially said he didn’t believe it. He was not alone. Yet in the group of women I sat with, I heard bishops’ wives[3] speak of AIDS widows being forced to marry one of their deceased husband’s brothers, whether or not he was already married. If a woman refused, the husband’s family would take her children and property. The church in their contexts would not support the woman unless she complied.

The real Communion-wide work on gender violence did not get wide support and action beyond women’s groups until a staff member of the ACO – a woman – brought the issue to the Primates’ Meeting. After several well-informed personal statements by primates, the whole group agreed to take it home as a major priority.

Women leaders serve both as iconic images of the complexity and otherness of God and by representing and raising the concerns of the marginalized, having known that reality themselves. Both are basic to following Jesus, who spent most of his active ministry with the marginalized, seeking to make them and their communities whole. It doesn’t mean that men cannot also do that work, but that women by their social location are often closer to the reality of the oppressed and unfree.

That gift of a different (ab-normal?) social location often brings with it the willingness to build bridges across boundaries in order to confront the principalities and powers. Jesus’ willingness to dine with the unclean is one example. Think also of the non-violent witness of Liberian market-women in the peace process,[4] or the Nigerian women who finally got executives of polluting and exploitative oil companies to pay attention to their grievances by sitting down in the street in front of their offices and removing their shirts. Like Lady Godiva, they shamed their oppressors, rather than themselves.

Creative leadership uses the gifts at hand to foment transformation. Women have rarely been able to rely on traditional modes of power and control to energize change. Jesus used the tools of the least of these, rather than those of rulers, to lead us toward the Reign of God, and those are the gifts that we are looking for. Women (and men) who can lead from below are particularly needed in an age when the Church is rediscovering its position on the margins of society. That is the native home of the body of Christ, and indeed, of all the world’s great religious traditions.

[1] Genesis 1:26-28,31

[2] From the Latin, domus, and Greek, domos, meaning “house.”

[3] Most of them powerful leaders in their own contexts, particularly with the Mothers’ Union and with women married to clergy.

[4] Pray the Devil back to Hell