One step forward, two giant leaps back – the English Episcopate

jesus and woman

There have been times in my ministry in Scotland when I have really wondered whether the Scottish Episcopal Church’s relationship of full communion with the Church of England is a good thing. I may not be a nationalist but I guard the independence of my church very fiercely. Recently though, rather than wondering whether full communion with England is a good thing, I find myself wondering whether it in fact still exists.

Here’s the thing. Next week a bishop will be consecrated in the Church of England who will be the first bishop of that church who happens to be a woman.

Now, I’m all in favour of the Episcopate being open to both men and women. I always have been. However, what I mean by that is that I’m in favour of the Episcopate being opened to both men and women on the same terms. I’m not really in favour of it being opened to women on a different basis to that by which men are consecrated. And for that reason, I’ve always been rather suspicious of what’s going on down south.

I watched many people in England celebrating the vote to allow women to become bishops with very mixed feelings. You see, I was aware that the terms were not really so good.

Next week, the first woman will be consecrated in York Minister. There will be rejoicing. However, I know a number of women and a number of men in the church for whom the rejoicing will be somewhat muted and rightly so.

Just a few days after Libby Lane is consecrated a bishop in York Minister, there will be another consecration of someone called Philip North. He is being made a bishop and he is one of the people who don’t accept the ordination of women. And the word has apparently gone out that all those bishops who consecrate Libby Lane are not to lay hands on Philip North in order to “preserve” or “protect” for him and those who share his views an untainted, “pure” line of succession which has not been interfered with by anyone who either is a woman or who has actually touched a woman in a previous consecration.

This idea of being tainted because you have touched a woman in a religious service is vile. One might presume that anyone who held to such a view would be regarded by the institution as being unworthy of being made a bishop and thus a leader of men people. But no – not only is the Church of England going ahead with this plan, it was actually built into the plan to ordain women in the first place. If women were to be ordained then there would continue to be bishops who didn’t recognise those women as bishops and who would continue to be ordained by a line of male bishops who had not been contaminated by those pesky women.

Now, remarkably to many of those of us outside England, there are actually people who think this is a good idea. There are actually people who think this is what inclusion looks like and who think that this was a price worth paying for women being made bishops.

(Remember at this point that congregations who don’t fancy having a girl bishop can opt to have a boy bishop instead too).

This hideous situation is demeaning of women. It is demeaning of men too because it demeans our common humanity. But it is demeaning of God too.

But wait! It gets worse.

I know you are probably wondering how it can possibly get worse, but it does. You see, the Church of England has decided (I’m at a loss really to know how) that it needs always to have a bishop who “holds a conservative view on headship”. Now, this means that it is going to have a bishop who has been appointed with a job description that demands that he (yes, he) believes that men have headship over women.

People sometimes erroneously presume these people to be Evangelicals but that’s a slur on very many Evangelicals. The name for this is religious misogyny and the C of E is not just practising it but making sure that it will be practised in perpetuity.

Now, you might well say – “oh, that’s the Church of England for you, what does it matter to us?”

But it does matter. Are our bishops all in full communion with the Church of England’s bishops. All our bishops have shared in a consecration with a female participant, so I presume they are well and truely “tainted” from that point of view, thank goodness.

It matters too because those of us outside the Church of England tend to take the Anglican Communion rather more seriously than many in the C of E do.

When a bishop who happened to be gay was consecrated in the USA, many in the C of E were up in arms because they hadn’t been consulted.

Well, these two developments in England that are coming up are things that those of us around the communion haven’t been consulted about either. And if we don’t get to share the decision making, we can at least hold our noses whilst it happens and say that it must never happen here.

The official recognition of a theology of taint in the Church of England applying to those who touch Libby Lane was not in my view a price worth paying for the ordination of women as bishops.

The search for a bishop and the establishment of a permanent post, for someone who holds a doctrinal position stating that men have a headship role over women by definition is also not a price that was worth paying.

The cause of equality has made a big step forward with the opening of the Episcopate to women in England but has been accompanied by two giant leaps backwards.

The position of the Scottish Episcopal Church has become quite clear on the Anglican Communion in recent years. We love it – but not at any price.

PS – before anyone starts belly-aching about the need for the Scottish Episcopal Church to elect a female bishop, can I remind anyone tempted to comment that the only way we can do so is by bumping off one of the current bishops. Those advocating this development should let the General Synod Office in Edinburgh know which bishop they’d like removed in this way and their chosen method. Once that has been done we’ll have an election, but I’m warning you not to prejudge the outcome, we’re still likely to try to select the best person for the job, regardless of gender. That’s what equality looks like.


  1. Richard says:

    The whole debacle in the C of E makes a lamentable public mockery of the theology behind laying on of hands and apostolic succession.

    • Barbara Thorington Green says:

      I believe we can continue to expect thoughts and actions like this until people refer to God with feminine pronouns, metaphors, etc. with the same ease as people use masculine ones. For help in bringing this about see “Calling God She?”

      • David baker says:

        better yet, let’s not ascribe gender to God at all. Let’s just call God, “God”.

    • Chief Jim Donovan says:

      With the views Fr. North has, I am amazed that there was consent from the House of Bishops!

  2. ISTM that a bishop that can be swapped for a supposedly preferred one is not a true bishop, IOW the CoE haven’t actually got women-bishops anyway. (This is probably not a new or original thought.)

    Maybe Libby Lane should adopt a disguise and sneak along to Mr North’s affair too…

  3. This is very well put. It’s sickening, the whole shebang. It makes me ill to consider that people can still say this kind of thing, let alone in public.

  4. Bro David says:

    Too bad that every bishop in England won’t help consecrate Libby so that there isn’t anyone to consecrate Phillip!

    • Bro David says:

      Christain today –
      The source said: “We understand that there are only about three bishops who will actually be able to lay hands on Philip North because everyone else will have laid hands on Libby Lane the week before. It is very odd for all these bishops to be present at a consecration and yet just two or three lay on hands.”


      Although the former “provincial episcopal visitors” known as flying bishops were consecrated by bishops who had ordained women priests, such as Lord Carey, sources said the situation around this apparent contradiction changed the moment the Canon was passed allowing the consecration of women bishops. Following the passing of the Canon, every subsequent traditionalist bishop and priest must be ordained by bishops who are free of “taint”.

  5. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    As a female member of the ECUSA old enough to remember my confirmation in 1957 meaning, among other things, that I could now set foot behind the altar rail as a member of the Junior Altar Guild but NOT–never!–as an acolyte, and certainly never as a member of the clergy (in other words, girls can’t participate in the magic but they can do the clean-up), and recalling how angry that made me, I’m extraordinarily curious as to why the remnants of this kind of thinking are still alive and well back in the mother country. Do the women of the Church of England still not see themselves as the equals of men, even in the sight of God? Do those in power in the church still regard the touch of a woman as contaminating them so that their holy magic won’t work? There’s something extremely anti-Christian in all this.

  6. Maureen Lyons says:

    Well sai, Meg Rosenfeld. The Diocese of Delaware is a leader in matters of equality inTEC/E C USA and it makes my blood pressure go over the top when I see nonsense like this in the CofE.

  7. Sarah Walters says:

    Thank-you. As a ‘not theologically educated’ woman, whose response to this is one of horror, I’m really grateful to read this from you.

  8. Donna Wessel Walker says:

    Truly awful on all counts. Thanks for your cogent summary and your well-expressed opposition. We in TEC have long had cause to be thankful for the Scottish Episcopal Church; even more now.

  9. James Stewart says:

    Like you, i wish it could be other than it is, that it was simply not an issue. But we live at THIS point in church history. One day we will have the unity we all hope for. In the meantime if we need to treat the weaker believers with more care then it is the kind and Christian thing to do. Romans 14. Let’s calm down and speak with grace on to another.

  10. Cynthia says:

    It isn’t very graceful, James, to be subjected to this indignity. And no equality has ever been achieved without making a “fuss.” Even it is the “fuss” of simply speaking the truth.

    I echo my fellow travelers in TEC and am deeply grateful to Kelvin for expressing it all so well.

  11. While The Episcopal Church was going through these debates (thankfully, we saw ordination as ordination – deacon, priest and bishop – as the same issue and didn’t split them up the way the CofE has), I carried with me three quotes from former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass:

    + Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

    + The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppose.

    + I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

    I send them to my sisters and brothers “across the pond” with love and hope.

  12. Steven says:

    From someone on the fringes of Christian faith this simply corroborates the view of all those who doubt the legitimacy of such total and utter rubbish. Kelvin has not minced his words – and rightly so – this is vile. In fact it is beyond vile it is just so utterly preposterous so as to defy explanation and debate. I wonder how many hours were spent agonising over the precise details of this ludicrous arrangement to keep some nutters (yes, nutters) happy. If there is a God, he most assuredly could not give a damn about this. If Jesus came back right now he would not stop throwing up at this being done in his name.

  13. Ruth says:

    To an ‘outsider’ it’s almost unbelievable – makes me think of an unpleasant game of ‘tag’ that used to be played at primary school – known as ‘scabby touch’. Don’t they see or care how such misogynistic superstition diminishes them?

  14. Keith Barber says:

    Thank you, Kelvin, from far-off London where we have to put up with this crap. Like you, I’m appalled. I wonder how long this kind of thing can continue before some of us decide we, too, need alternative episcopal oversight from one of the more Christian dioceses of the Communion.

  15. Are Roman Catholics religious misogynists?

    • Not so much as the Church of England bishops are about to become, no.

      • Robin says:

        > Are Roman Catholics religious misogynists?

        > Not as much as the Church of England Bishops are about to become, no.

        Do you really think an absolute No for all eternity is better than a qualified Yes?

        • I think the Church of Rome says women cannot be ordained and cannot become Bishops. I disagree with that position but that is all it is. The Church of England says that women can become Bishoppettes but that the boys don’t even need to recognise them as that. I think that is more offensive and more corrosive long term.

          • Robin says:

            Oh dear. On this, between you and me is “a great gulf fixed”. We think so differently that I don’t see us ever agreeing 🙁

          • I agree, Kelvin. This patronising guff is the last straw.

          • I think that the theology of the Roman Catholic Church is entrenched in misogyny. I do not think that that is a good thing. It was one of the many things that led to me choosing to no longer identify myself as a Roman Catholic. However, it is an entrenchment based on an absolute refusal to change a practice that is hundreds of years old. I repeat: I don’t think that’s a good thing or a right thing, and it’s a theology that I haven’t much time for.

            I think that the Church of England have chosen to change their practice, and in so choosing have, in 2015, said consciously and purposefully that misogyny is a cherished and valued characteristic of the established national Church. That is why I have a problem with it.

          • I also think that in so doing they have set back actual gender equality in ministry by two or three generations, perhaps more, because they have done just enough to remove the impetus but not nearly enough to address the actual inequality.

          • I also (sorry, Kelvin) have more respect for the position of an organisation that says, “we don’t believe that women are equal, do you want to make something of that?” than I do for one that says, “we don’t believe women are equal but let’s make it look like we do, the poor dears will probably not notice and we’ll have a quieter life.”

  16. Robin says:

    All I can do is quote, as I’ve done once before in this context, Sean O’Casey in “Juno and the Paycock”: “To be sure, to be sure – no bread’s [or in this case 99%’s] a lot better than half a loaf.”

    Women bishops are there to stay in the CofE, while their opponents will wither away – and quite rapidly, at that. The battle has been won. I can’t see a future in the CofE for people with Fr North’s views, and they’d be better off in the Ordinariate. If you want women bishops, it’s daft to prefer Rome to the CofE.

    • Robin says:

      And for the avoidance of doubt, let me repeat that my point is *not* about whether women can or should be bishops, or about whether the CofE’s Five Principles (if that’s how they’re described) are fair or unfair, or good or bad, or a mistake or not, but – very simply, and very specifically – about whether the RC church is less misogynist than the CofE. On the question of consecrating women as bishops on the same terms as men, the CofE is oh-so-nearly there and it will soon have arrived, whereas the RC church not only hasn’t started but never will start. No contest there, I would have thought.

  17. Iain Frew says:

    As one who grew up in the Church of Scotland and is now an Elder of the URC, I have always viewed Bishops with dismay. They so often seem to have a “mightier than thou” attitude and to have some rejoicing in poor Libby’s elevation while others seek to reject any sort of contact with her simply demonstrates how appaling a church the C of E has become. Bishops? Get rid of the lot. Instead appoint a priest to chair or lead a group of churches after which he/she slips back to being a local vicar.

    • I’m pretty sure, from first hand observation, that Presbyterian governance has its own problems. It’s not as if the Church of Scotland’s pronouncements on gay clergy have exactly been models of decisive, enlightened, Godly leadership.

  18. Tony Whatmough says:
  19. I immediately thought off the “unclean women, of old, ” I don’t think I have to explain what I mean. The very thought of a clergyman, even a prospective Bishop, dictating, who can or can’t touch him. I think that this is exactly the wrong sort of man in a position of power. The concept of equality is immediately being discarded, which means that if a person looks up to the Bishop, they may think that this behaviour is okay.

  20. Thank you, Kelvin, for a clear statement of the issue. I’ve said elsewhere that what North’s episcopal ordination represents, with its untainted-by-women consecrators, is a traditionalist preservation of the ancient heresy of Donatism. It is, as you have said, vile; there is no place for it in the church.

  21. Way back in the very early 60’s I quit attending the C of E. At that time it was the primary source of ‘anti-me-as-a female’ teachings in my life. Strangely, it was also totally opposite to my parents and teachers in the practise of acceptance of other people regardless of skin tone. As a thinking young woman I felt it immoral to support this type of lifestyle that was being modelled to me by priests and older congregation members.

    Since then I have heard all sorts of nonsense coming from the C of E, but this latest bit just beats all previous incidences. Now that I am a Senior Citizen I find myself gobsmacked that there appear to be young men who think that women are ‘contagious’ in some way. It doesn’t seem surprising to me in the least that this brand of Christianity is dying out. Thoughtful young people wouldn’t see any reason to attend such a group – I would find myself talking quite seriously to any younger family member who was thinking of joining the C of E.

    • Which is really sad because Anglicanism (although not this bizarre extreme form of misogynistic Anglo-Catholicism) has so much to offer to the spirituality of the post-modern age. The “both/and” middle way of classical Anglicanism is, in reality, post-modern to the core! It anticipated the post-modern era. But . . . I recognize that the C of E may be too moribund to survive.

  22. Revd Rosie Radcliffe says:

    Thank God for you and your clarity in naming this ridiculous and shameful situation for what it is. As an ordained woman IN THE DIOCESE of Blackburn, I am appalled by the whole thing and will be taking this up with the Diocesan Bishop as to why he felt it “necessary to appoint a traditionalist” as suffragan, whose ministry will be unacceptable to me.

  23. Keith Barber says:

    I did hear a suggestion (3rd or 4th hand via Facebook… as many caveats as you wish apply) that this allows ++Sentamu to not have to consecrate a bishop who subscribes to the theology of taint (regardless of what he might prefer us to call it).

    That sounds to me like a “Mutually Beneficial Arrangement”… a way of two (or more, if they’re in to that sort of thing) parties getting what they want without having to deal with any of the mundane (let-alone difficult) consequences. Which is fine by me so long as it’s an entirely private arrangement confined to the bedroom of consenting adults. But as a way of running a church?

    I remain appalled. And so angry that I rather hope someone will find a way of laying a “tainted” hand on every rejectionist bishop who’s ever consecrated. Not very charitable perhaps but at least it would put an end to this dreadful nonsense once and for all.

  24. Rosemary Hannah says:

    I am not at all sure it is helpful to try and decide which of the tow horrid church positions is horridest – they are both vile.

  25. Revd Ian P. Hamilton says:

    I can’t help but deplore that he proposal which has come from a senior cleric in the North, and smacks of the Donatism around Carthage, in the third century AD. Very sad, and very strange. I am not an Anglican, but feel a little betrayed by the prevarication in the Church of England for the last 60 or so years on the ministry of the whole Church of God in this country.

  26. John Fortunato says:

    This whole area of Anglican ecclesiology needs to be taken seriously. The Washington National Cathedral with the permissin of the Episcopal Bishop of Washington is now permitting a Methodist minister (female, but not the issue) to preside at Eucharist at the cathedral. Huh?! So they basically have dismissed as inconsequential the historic episcopacy. So why did we bother with all those years of dialogue with the ELCA and concluding of a Concordat with the Lutherans in the US that included introducing an Anglican bishop at every Lutheran episcopal consecration to re-introduce the succession back into the ELCA lineage? What happened to the Lambeth Quadrilateral? Everything is getting loosey-goosey in the name of “inclusivity.” We are enroute to ecclesiastical chaos.

  27. Stella says:

    Having read this I had no idea to the extent of the inequality and sexual discrimination that was occurring within the churches hierarchy. Thank you for writing this excellent article. I am disappointed, to put it mildly, that this is allowed to happen. How can we encourage Christian unity, tolerance and unconditional love. My question is what do we do? Its understandable why Christian worship is declining. Please could the church lead by example. There is criticism that other religions treat females as second class citizens, is the COf E not guilty of the same crime?

  28. Father Ron Farrell says:

    Just looking through the comments about why the Episcopal Church has yet no women in the episcopate, I am puzzled. This part of the Communion has been able to elect women as bishops since the primary legislation allowed women in all three Orders. The Provost seems to suggest that even if (a bishop of the College having been suitably ‘bumped off’) a woman should be nominated, it may not result in her election as ‘the best candidate’ will be chosen. After all these years of equality, is the Provost suggesting that no woman will naturally be the best candidate? Indeed has no woman hitherto been as gifted as the men who have gained the purple? Or is there still a sub-plot???

    • No. The Provost isn’t suggesting that. There has, so far been one candidate who has been female at an Episcopal election in Scotland, events such don’t occur often in any case. The electors course chose someone else.

  29. Ritualist Robert says:

    What I find bemusing about these Anglo-catholic ‘traditionalists’ is how on the one hand they stick to the catholic line on (episcopal) ordination but, on the other, get decidedly un-catholic and behave in a congregationalist manner when it comes to being a part of the wider church. One would have thought that part of being a good Anglo-catholic is to obey what the Church teaches rather than demanding novelties such as ‘flying bishops’ and embracing the ‘theology of taint’.

    Having just read the Statement of Guiding Principles ( it’s clear what the Church teaches about the episcopate and it perplexes me that the C of E would allow its ordained clergy to teach otherwise. Of course, they could always go to Rome or Constantinople, but those Churches wouldn’t pander to their congregationalist ways, I believe.

  30. Father Ron Farrell says:

    Hmm. Ritualistic Robert speaks of traditionalists ‘demanding’ flying bishops (which are actually no more novel than bishops to the forces or the overlapping anglican jurisdictions in Europe, or even suffragan or area bishops – these each ‘divide up’ the jurisdiction of a monarchical episcopate) and ’embracing’ a theology of taint. My memory is that the flying bishops were the brainchild of Archbishop Hapgood, not a notable conservative, and were of course brought into existence by a vote in General Synod which had a far larger majority than that achieved by the legislation to permit the ordination of women to the presbyterate. And I have to say that over the last 23 years I have never heard any ‘traditionalist’ express a ‘theology of taint’ – that expression, it seems to me, is actually only ever used by liberals or modernisers to beat up on traditionalists. If the arrangements for Fr Philip North’s consecration next week were about ‘taint’ then a far greater number of bishops than the three nominated to lay hands on him by the archbishop could be fielded – there are the 3 PEVs, a fair smattering of retired diocesans and suffragans and former PEVs, as well as a couple of the non-retireds. There will be quite a large number of ‘kosher conservatives’ who will be exercising gracious restraint alongside their archbishop

    • Bro David says:

      I believe that according to the statement from the ABY, that most of the folks that you have suggested would also be requested to exercise restraint because most of them were consecrated by bishops who ordained women. It was less an issue in the era of flying bishops.

      • Father Ron says:

        I am fairly sure that the three who lay hands on Fr North will also have had hands laid on them by bishops who had ordained women presbyters – as the ABY reminds us. ‘Taint’ (which WATCH are again bandying about; I fear they may have been the political instigators of the term rather than those from whom they differ) appears not to be an issue here

        • So your point is that Fresh Expressions of Taint are OK?

          • Father Ron Farrell says:

            Taint is your language, whether new or old. Accusing folk of something they don’t believe and of language that they do not use seems hardly helpful. It strikes me that the graciousness of the ABY really lies in allowing his ‘opponents’ a place in which they too, like the majority, may flourish, which seems a strangely Christian thing to do

          • You would have to remind me of times Jesus behaved in that way.

  31. Father Ron Farrell says:

    Oh, and Robert, I am shocked that you reject the C of E’s Declaration of Assent which sensibly talks about the Church of England as ‘part of the one holy Catholic and apostolic church’. You seem to want to limit the notion of ‘church’ to that part of it with which you agree, the very thing for which you berate the romanisers. The church is bigger than the CofE, the Church in Wales, the SEC, the Church of Ireland, or even our Communion. And then there is always the democracy of the dead to be considered

  32. Andy says:

    I just can’t understand. I think there is a point at which Faith and Religion separate. Where Faith is something you believe in (yourself, respect for others etc) and Religion is the organisation present to make sure you believe in right rules and don’t upset the balance of power.
    Why can’t anyone be a bishop ? Surely it’s the mind that’s the important asset ?
    Where would we be without women ? Not born for a start.
    What can the male bishops be so scared of ?
    Not sure why I’m adding my thoughts here……..

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