On 7 December 2019 the Revd Martha E. (Marty) Stebbins will be consecrated a Bishop in the Church of God, to be installed as the Bishop of the Diocese of Montana in the Episcopal Church of the USA. She will become the one hundredth woman to be ordained to the episcopate in the Anglican Communion. In 2020 there will probably be over eighty women attending the Lambeth Conference as bishops: something hard to imagine just thirty years when Barbara Harris (soon to turn 90 – Hallelujah, Anyhow!) was elected and consecrated as the first Anglican female bishop.
The pace of appointment of women as bishops in 2019 has been unprecedented: some twenty-three ordinations and a further six-in-waiting for 2020, adding one-third to the total number in just twelve months. Women have now been called to episcopal leadership from the Arctic, Arizona and the Amazon to Adelaide and Aotearoa, from Brazil to Birmingham, Cuba to Colorado, Ireland to India, Montana, Massachusetts and Michigan to Monmouth and Melbourne, in South Africa, Swaziland, and South Sudan.
Soon it will be impossible to keep track of the number. For in some churches of the Anglican Communion, bishops who are women have almost ceased to be notable, as their appointments become routine. In Wales, three of the six diocesan bishops are women, and three are men. Three of the earliest female bishops – Jane Holmes Dixon, Nerva Cot Aguilera, and Barbara Brinsley Darling – have died. Several others have retired after episcopal careers which in some cases have spanned more than two decades, in one, two or three dioceses, and some have been succeeded by other women. One woman has even been defrocked, a reminder that women are no more or less human in their flourishing and failing.
Yet the Anglican Communion remains divided on the acceptance of women in the episcopate. There are female bishops in only twelve provinces – Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, South India, South Sudan, the United States and Wales. Within provinces, dissent remains, not least in Australia where the Diocese of Sydney continues not to permit women to be ordained or licensed as either priests or bishops, or South Sudan where the ministry of Bishop Elizabeth Awut Ngor remains something of an anomaly.
Nevertheless the 2014 decision of the Church of England to admit women and men equally to all orders of ministry constitutes a landmark in the story of the ordination of women. This is partly because of England’s history as the Anglican Communion’s point of distinctive origin, but also because of the sheer number of women the Church of England has called to the episcopate in the last five years (25 as of yesterday).
In my view what is most remarkable is that the Anglican Communion has held together far better than many commentators and report-writers thought possible in the 1980s when the admission of women to the episcopate was first seriously contemplated (usually as a distant event). This could be seen by both progressives and conservatives as a bad thing: a sign that women have not changed or challenged the Church’s structures as much as some hoped, that gender roles in the Church are too contingent on cultural context, or that the catholicity of the Church has been fractured for what might be a period of decades or even centuries through the impairment of episcopal unity.
Yet it is hard if not impossible now merely to ignore female bishops as a passing fad, as a capitulation to so-called secular feminism, in light of the fruits which have flowed from the episcopal ministry of women, as they are appointed in growing numbers and as they come to represent more fully the diversity of humanity.
Few Anglican historians have failed to notice that the first woman ordained to the priesthood was Chinese, and the first woman ordained to the episcopate was African American. A significant minority of the one hundred women now called to the office of bishop are women of colour, First Nations women, Latina women, who have faced multiple forms of discrimination and injustice in seeking to respond to the call to ministry.
Women serve the church as suffragan, assistant and area bishops, as coadjutors and diocesans, as archbishops (4, since 2018) and primates (2, since 2006). There are dioceses which have not just one but two female bishops, and there have been ordination services where as many as four women have been consecrated together. Five female bishops sit in the British House of Lords.
Many of the first one hundred bear the wounds and joys of the Church’s disagreements and discoveries about the ordination of women. Six have received episcopal ordination on four occasions – as deaconesses, deacons, priests and bishops – evidence of a lifelong commitment to responding to the call of God and the Church even as that call was first being heard, glimpsed and tested by the wider Body of Christ. A few have risen through the ranks with relatively little experience of outright opposition to the inclusion of women in the Church’s leadership, having been ordained into national Churches long after the ordination of women was approved.
So, whatever the future holds for the Church, for the Anglican Communion, I say thank you to the new Bishop of Montana and to the other hundred-plus women serving God and the Church as bishops. Thank God for your courage and persistence, for your ministry and service, for your gifts and your failures. May you ever continue to shepherd God’s people, wherever you are, to say “Amen” to God’s “Yes” sent forth to all people in Christ Jesus.