Thursday, 23 October 2014

Women in the Episcopate Bill gains Royal Assent

It has just been announced in the House of Lords that the Queen has given Royal Assent to the bill that will open the episcopate to women.

Suddenly, things seem to be moving quickly. The only formal step remaining is for the General Synod of the Church of England to promulge the legislation (on November 17th), and from that date women will be eligible for appointment as bishops.

This is great news, and will enable the Church of England to choose from a much wider pool of talented and experienced candidates, which should make it much easier both to find bishops who are the right fit for each post, and to ensure that the College and House of Bishops as a whole includes a wider range of the skills, experiences and specialisms that we need as a Church.

Will there be tokenistic appointments? This is a fear that is regularly expressed - both by men and women. I think it is extremely unlikely. And this is even though the bottleneck of highly qualified and experienced women is so large that it would be possible for the next 10 or 20 appointments of bishops to all be women without it being a question of anything other than finding the right person for the job.

In practice, though, the way the appointments process works for bishops tends to produce compromise candidates. Certain groups within the process can effectively exercise a veto over anyone they find uncongenial, or fear others may find uncongenial. Some members of the Central Crown Nominations Commission are opposed to the ordination of women. And there is a fear around in at least some dioceses that 'if we appoint a woman, she will spend all her time having to be the token woman bishop at national events and won't have enough time to devote to us, her diocese'.

I hope and pray - and I know I am not alone in this - that at least two or three women will be appointed in fairly swift succession, if only to relieve the pressure on 'the first'. But each appointment will need to be made on its own merits, and so this may not happen.

I also hope and pray that when the first, second, third, fourth or fifth woman is made a bishop, people will be able to restrain themselves from diminishing her by asking sniping questions about whether she was a token appointment. Remember, there is that bottleneck of talent.

Finally, I hope and pray that male clergy and their friends will be willing to restrain themselves from bitterly asking whether their own 'promotion prospects' have been harmed by 'political correctness'. It is a truth rarely acknowledged in all this process that yes, of course, the chances of a man becoming a bishop will be diluted when the pool is widened. But I hope we can all see that as a cause for rejoicing in the widened pool, rather than complaining about the changed perspective that makes us seem slightly smaller fish.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Church of England Branding Guidelines: No more '3 Men in A Row' Pictures Please!

I've been embroiled in a bit of an argument on Twitter today. The new diocese of WYAD has just consecrated its two new bishops, which is brilliant news. But the picture that was posted in 'celebration' of this was rather dull, and I said so (its been changed on their website now: see the current selection of pics here (much better!).

The ensuing debate got rather heated. In being exasperated with yet another Three-Men-In-A-Row picture, I was accused of wanting 'tokenism' (dragging a woman in kicking and screaming - as if there obviously wouldn't be a woman who merited inclusion on her own terms); or even of being derogatory to the ministry of these new bishops. 'Isn't their ministry worth celebrating?' someone asked. Of course. And better pictures would make it look so much more celebratory.

Back in September, I made the same point when Chelmsford Cathedral tweeted this picture of the new bishops of Barking and Colchester about to be installed:

I tweeted back in some exasperation at such a dull image - asking where were the women? Now this was of course partly influenced by our history as a church over the past couple of years: the fact that all the new bishops at the moment are indeed men is a bit of a sore point, and pictures like this had been rubbing salt into that wound for some time.

To do them credit, the volunteer who runs the @CCathedral twitter feed responded immediately with some lovely other photos of the event. My favourite - which showed the new bishops meeting some of the congregation, and included black and white, children and adults - is no longer on their website, but this one was the other that he or she tweeted then:

It is still a formal shot of a formal event, but it is much more engaging, don't you agree? 

My point is this. That second picture is no less 'real' than the first. It wasn't taken as a token gesture, and it includes the people it does because they were the people who were there. But the photographer didn't think to include this picture at first, because the other is the conventional image chosen in these circumstances. Only when asked to think about the idea of some branding guidelines - trying to include some diversity in the pictures chosen for press releases - did s/he pick this picture. 

So I think we should, as a church, hold ourselves to some self-imposed branding guidelines in the pictures we choose to publicise ourselves to the world with. Examples might be: all pictures should, where possible, include at least one of both men and women, or young and old, or different colours.

The idea is certainly not be to create an artificial image of the church, but to make us look afresh at the very real church we have, and choose pictures that show her as her bright, vibrant, welcoming, real self. 

Even though our bishops are all men at the moment, they are part of a wonderfully diverse church: let's show that, to properly celebrate and affirm their, and our, ministry.