Dionne Gravesande examines the Church of England’s historic vote in favour of ordaining women as bishops, and explores what this means for Black women
Last month, the Church of England (CoE) voted to allow women to become bishops for the first time in its history. It comes more than 20 years after women were first allowed to become parish priests – now more than one in five priests are female.
The decision in many ways has upset the applecart of male-only bishops, a tradition inherited from the first Christians almost 2,000 years ago. Though the vote was won, many Anglicans argue that the Church’s theology has been changed to reflect that men and women are equally eligible to lead and teach Christianity; for them, the decision taken was disappointing. The CoE may have taken a bold and brave step, but I would argue it’s just another step in the journey of the Church struggling with a 21st century culture and tradition.
The journey to acceptance is not easy. For every statement made in support of women bishops, there are more questions raised than answers given. The issue is far from being straightforward; in some parts it’s a hard, legalistic or rights-based argument, and in other parts it’s about soft relationships and God’s calling. If the broader Church is to complete the full journey required into accepting, anointing and ordaining women as bishops, it has a long road to walk, and this particular road is still under construction! For now, all eyes are poised to see who will be first woman bishop appointed in the CoE. No doubt she will need thick skin to deal with the intimidation and pressure of others but, whoever she is, she will need support and lots of prayers to see her through the expectations of those wanting her to succeed or not.
As I paused to reflect on the implications of the Yes vote for female bishops for women generally, I think for Black women they are somewhat significant, and not just because of the large numbers of African and Caribbean worshippers in the CoE, but for Black leadership in general. I think the issues are about identity, valuing and affirmation. We know religion plays a very important role in the lives of many Black women – in fact, their attendance makes up two-thirds of any church family – so it seems to me there are important discussions to be had about whether the ‘difference’ of gender is to be celebrated or overcome when it comes to taking up office in the church.
There is a lot of evidence to show that gender stereotypes create male and female ‘boxes’, which shape behaviours, attitudes and social expectations, tagging males as macho, aggressive, breadwinners and, broadly speaking, women are portrayed as weaker, emotional and submissive. From a young age, many girls are steered in a particular way, most of their socialisation works towards being a good wife, mother and a socially acceptable woman. (I’m not arguing that this is wrong; I am simply saying what is already the case.) While social norms are changing, the dominant attitude reflects the majority of societies we live and work in, and often these images are played out in the mainstream media, the Church and business institutions.
So what difference does all this make to Black identity? The answer is it makes a huge difference, because not only do we have to live and cope with gender stereotypes, but we also have to live within the reality of racial prejudice and discrimination. Yes, those things still happen, both in overt and subtle ways, and this further complicates our relationships amongst ourselves and with others. Large sections of the African Caribbean diaspora still wrestle with the legacy of shackled slavery and the generational physiological effect on our collective self-worth, and the damage it has caused can be seen in some relationships between men and women. How does biology relate to Black culture, and how might the Christian faith help us to have a different starting place for a much-needed conversation?
One question we must ask is what are the tools needed to analyse gender relations in a different way, tools that take us back to Scripture for a new revelation, because it is such revelations that give the Church its prophetic voice. The Church very much needs a position on this, because of the way in which gender is such a key driver of social norms and, unless we seek the mind of God, the Church itself will continue to exclude women in leadership in all sorts of ways – sometimes unintentionally (my mind recalls the Woman at the Well story). After all, the entire Gospel message is founded and rooted in the Christian faith, and not on secular theory.
Let’s remember that while Jesus still walked with His creation, He spoke about new wine in old wineskins. Could this be a new wineskin moment? The world today is in need, and the Church is still God’s instrument to meet that need. I think women can bring so much to the office of Bishop so I, for one, will pray they will not be written off before their work has begun.