Keep Context in Mind: Welsh Women Bishops 24 October 2013

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Manon Ceridwen James is optimistic about the introduction of women bishops in Wales, but believes it is important to keep things in perspective.

Charges for plastic bags, free prescriptions and now women Bishops… Wales is leading the way! These were the sorts of comments we heard on social media and in newspaper articles when the bill to ordain women as Bishops was passed with an overwhelming majority on September 12th 2013 within the Church in Wales, having failed last year in the Church of England.

The media had forgotten that the Episcopalian Church in Scotland had passed a bill to allow women to be consecrated as Bishops in 2003, and that the Church of Ireland had ensured that provision was made for women to be ordained Bishop as well as priest when their bill to ordain women was passed in 1990. Since then it has been announced that the Revd Pat Storey, a woman, has been elected Bishop of Meath and Kildare.

In everyday discourse we often speak about Wales being `behind’ England, though according to the 2011 census, Wales is more secularised with only 57.6% stating they are Christians, and Islam being the only other religion to have a membership of over 1% (1.5%). 32.1% regard themselves as having `no religion’. Despite this, as a parish priest, I am able to deliver the same assemblies to church and non church schools, because even the schools in our area who are non church still would regard themselves as having a Christian ethos.

Wales, as well as Ireland and Scotland, are very different from England, particularly because of our distinctive religious histories. However, there has always been a tendency to treat Wales and England as similar. The interest in the Welsh story seemed to arise from the implications for the Church of England and my first reaction to these comments was how interesting that no-one simply celebrated this as a move forward for the Welsh Anglican Church.

Certainly if the Church of England had passed their bill last year, no-one would have asked what implication this has for the Church in Wales! So why the interest in this particular debate about women Bishops? The media is not usually especially interested in the debates in the Welsh Governing Body; and as some friends wryly commented, neither do they show any interest in the discussions at the Conferences of the Methodists or the Presbyterians. So why did the media arrive en masse in Lampeter this September?

First of all, the topic of sexuality and gender and the question of why churches seem to be completely out of step with the views of wider society make these debates fascinating. Secondly, everyone loves a good argument. Thirdly, though the Church in Wales is disestablished, it acts as if it is established so there is arguably a closer relationship between them and the C of E, than between the latter and any of the other Anglican Churches in Britain. Clergy often move across the border between England and Wales. Many of my friends in ministry, many of whom are Welsh speakers, minister in England. When women couldn’t be ordained priest in Wales, some went to England to be priested.

Although I am not on the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, those who were there said that the change of mood in the meeting was tangible. Something was happening –people said they could `feel the Spirit move’. In the Anglican Church, the Bible and Tradition has an authority, but so does Reason – that it is possible for `secular’ insights to enter into a conversation with the Bible and the teachings of the Church in order to inform belief or practice.

My own academic discipline is Practical Theology, where it is acknowledged that faith cannot be `objective’ but in fact springs from our own context and has to relate to our experience, as well as make a difference to human wellbeing and flourishing.

How Churches deal with the issues that are important to our society – especially identity, gender and sexuality and how to adapt faith to new insights about what it means to be human – seems to be of interest to the media and our society.

There is a challenge here to all of our faith traditions in how to adapt to new understandings on sex and gender. The decision of the Church in Wales to ordain women as bishops is only a small step on a long journey.

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About Manon Ceridwen James

Manon Ceridwen James is Rector of Llanddulas and Llysfaen parishes, Director of Exploring Faith and Bishop's Adviser for Ministry, St Asaph Diocese.