Women bishops urge more focus on gender issues
Welcome is warmer at this Lambeth Conference
Out of the 670 bishops attending, 18 are female, compared to 11 in 1998. The communion's first female primate, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, is attending her first Lambeth Conference, having been elected bishop of the Diocese of Nevada in 2001. She was elected presiding bishop in June 2006.
Nine days before the conference began on July 16 (it ends August 3), the Church of England's governing synod voted to bring forward legislation that would allow the consecration of women to the episcopate. The question of accommodating those who cannot accept women in that role was vigorously debated. A proposal that male "super bishops" be allowed to oversee dissenting parishes was defeated and a "code of practice" approved for dissenters but theological traditionalists said it was too weak.
Four provinces in the communion have elected female bishops: the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Liberals believe there is nothing in the Bible that bars women from ordained leadership and the church needs to use the gifts of all its members, while traditionalists point to Jesus and the disciples as males and ask why thousands of years of tradition should be changed.
While women bishops attending Lambeth are certainly passionate about the roles of women in the church, they also point out that the sexuality issues that have roiled the Anglican church are not focusing enough on many life-and-death concerns that mainly affect women.
"I have an ongoing concern that 'human sexuality' is a euphemism for focusing on male homosexuality without discussing sexuality issues that affect the reality of women's lives. For instance, the sex trafficking of women and girls, female genital mutilation, the taking of child brides and the terrible problems for girls who bear children," said Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam of New York.
Roskam said she welcomed the fact that women's issues "get more airtime" during discussions of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which were the focus of a march through London on July 24 and are a major mission focus for the Episcopal Church.
Archbishop Ian Ernest, primate of the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean, told a news conference on July 31 that the sexuality conversations should be expanded. "Conversation cannot stop on Monday (the day after August 3, the conference's last day). It's got to continue," he said. "We widened the spectrum of the debate [in his discussion group], not limiting ourselves to focus only on homosexuality, but also touch on the problem of polygamy. One church in my own country [is seeing in its area] intense sexual activity among our young adults, so the whole scope of [discussing] human sexuality has got to be enlarged."
One day of the conference was given over to a joint bishops' and spouses' meeting that focused on abuses of power such as domestic violence and rape. Bishop Gayle Harris, suffragan of Massachusetts, said that although she heard that some Bible study groups continued to discuss the theme, she was "saddened" that it did not come up in her group.
"In a hierarchy so male-dominated, we are still invisible ... As a woman of color, I have to look at elitism, classism, racism and all the other isms," she said in an interview.
On his blog (Internet diary), Bishop Larry Benfield of Arkansas wrote of the joint session that "the ushers, primarily young people, reported that when it came to begin the Bible study discussion, about 100 men left the [hall], while almost no women left. The second and more shocking learning: when one Western woman asked why we had to be segregated by sex to discuss the story, the facilitator said the reason was simple. There were people among us for whom this room was not a safe place to discuss the abuse of women and children."
Roskam noted that of the 16 "listeners" reporting from the 40-person discussion groups, only two are women. "They wanted geographic representation," she said, but added it would have been better to have complied with a resolution from the international Anglican Consultative Council (ACC 13-31) that women achieve 50 percent representation on church councils.
Female bishops attending their second Lambeth Conference say their experience at this conference has been easier.
At the last conference in 1998, "there were catcalls when we got up to speak. Someone said, 'Mama bishop should be having her babies.' This time, it's not an issue that we are here," said Bishop Cate Waynick of Indianapolis, in an interview.
"In 1998, all the bishops wore only cassocks [at worship]," noted Roskam, pointing out that some male bishops had refused to wear the traditional red and white rochet and chimere vestments at worship alongside women bishops. "This time, that didn't happen and I have been treated very collegially," she said. "I feel very ordinary."
Bishop Linda Nicholls, elected earlier this year as suffragan of Toronto, said "everybody has been very welcoming. Occasionally, somebody might be a little cool, but mostly people say, 'We are so glad you are here' or 'Thank you for being here'."
Roskam noted that a couple of Korean male bishops asked to have their pictures taken with the female bishops during a photo session on July 26. Waynick said that "a number of us have received tentative invitations from bishops saying 'Would it be possible that you could come and visit?' so their people could see a woman bishop."
Other bishops reported circumstances that contained unique characteristics. Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island said she was at her second Lambeth, but this time accompanied by a husband, Thomas Bair, and some people thought he was the bishop. (They got married last year.)
Bishop Nedi Rivera, of the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia, said she experienced more resistance to her ministry when she was ordained as a priest 33 years ago than in the past three-and-a-half years she has been a bishop. "I had people walk out when I got up to preach," she said. Often, though, she said, once a personal connection is forged, resistance to ordained women's ministry changes. "I had four women come to me and say, 'I can't deal with a woman priest,' but we kept having conversations and one of those women is now a priest," she recalled.» Respond to this article