Why the vote on women in the Church of England matters 

Hilary Cotton of WATCH on why the vote on women bishops matter to everyone.

On 14th July the governing body of the Church of England voted to open its leadership to women. Two days later WATCH (Women and the Church) was a sponsoring group at a Women in Leadership event in the City, where 2,000 people (including some men) considered what still needs to change across society for women to play a full part in leadership. ‘About b….time’ was the cry that echoed to us across the event, recognising that women have been held back by the Church of England for far too long.

Christianity does not have a very good history in its regard for women. Although Jesus was remarkably counter-cultural in speaking directly to women as equals and acknowledging their full place as faithful believers, the church soon took on the culture of the age and relegated women to ‘support services’ and the home. For 100 years the Church of England has been pondering whether to restore equality to women. At last, in this generation, things have begun to shift towards gender justice.

Why is this important? For two reasons: first, it sets out a marker for all religions. And second, it changes the landscape for all women. These are rather grandiose claims, which I’d better substantiate!

Many religions have some elements that require women to submit to men. The Church of England has sent a signal that this is not how women are to be viewed any longer: that women are created in the image of God, as are men, and that to treat them as inferior is to go against God’s desire for us to love each other as God loves us, whatever our gender. Ok, most people have little contact with the Church of England, but the influence of this national church is still widespread, and is the foundation of the way we live together as families and communities. I so look forward to hearing female voices on tv speaking as leaders of the church on assisted dying, abortion, single parenting, poverty: all issues that women experience and know about more acutely than men. And it will be great to have a few more role-models for our daughters of how women can lead.

How does women being bishops make a difference for ALL women? Because it says that women are human beings to be treated with respect. Around the world women are not valued as they should be. The Girl Summit on FGM, Angelina Jolie’s work to eradicate rape as a weapon of war, the push to get girls to school in developing countries, the campaigns to tackle domestic violence in this country, are all indicators that we have had enough, and things must change.

I am constantly surprised how sexism just will not go away in this country. In the 80s things got better for women at work, in the 00s things got better for parents at work, but we seem now to be even more in thrall to how we look, how we dress, catching our man, playing with the right toys for our gender, being nice and good, being princesses waiting to be swept off our feet by a handsome prince, offering ourselves for sex, not offending men. How did that happen?

The Church of England, with all churches, has a very long way to go in treating women equally. Perhaps now that women can be leaders – bishops – we can call time on other traditional roles. Perhaps men will want to make the tea and women run the finances. Perhaps God can be ‘Our Mother in heaven’ rather than a kind daddy/fierce judge/superhero/old man with a beard.

Perhaps our children will learn from us that women are ok, just fine, wonderful and normal, exactly as they are.

*Hilary Cotton, Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church)


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