When the measure to allow women bishops in the Church of England failed to garner the necessary number of votes, there was a smugness on this side of the Irish Sea. ‘How backward the Church of England are – we approved women bishops in 1990’. Indeed, we did, but twenty-three years later there hasn’t been a single one, nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future. It’s not that we are against women in principle, just that when it comes to practice, there are always good reasons to appoint a man.
Since the failure of the Church of England Synod vote in November to be carried with the necessary two-thirds majority, the Church of Ireland has had two opportunities to demonstrate its commitment to inclusive ministry, yet, in the elections last week and this week, everyone knew that there would be no prospect of anything historical happening.
In Meath and Kildare, it was widely expected in the weeks prior to the election that the very strong internal candidate would be elected, and he was; and in Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, it was assumed (at least in this corner of Ireland) that the person elected would be in the conservative evangelical tradition of his predecessor, and he was. Both candidates were strong figures with much to contribute to their dioceses and to the wider church, no-one could fault the electoral process.
It is the electoral process, which is strongly democratic, which will ensure that there is no prospect of a woman bishop. The process has its roots in the general vestry, the annual general meeting, of parishes. Once every three years, the general vestry, which is usually a gathering of the committed and traditional parishioners, elects members to the diocesan synod. In turn, the diocesan synod members hold elections for various bodies, including the diocesan electoral colleges.
By the time one reaches the level of a diocesan synod, one is generally dealing with people deeply rooted in tradition, people whose church membership stretches back over decades. Having spoken at diocesan synods North and South, urban and rural, it is remarkable how similar they are in composition: good, solid, faithful church members who have seen much come and go and who are not given to change. It seems unimaginable that from such bodies would come an electoral college that would contemplate anything radical.
The ordination of women as priests in 1990 was not seen as a fundamental shift; in a low church Protestant tradition, it was a matter of adjusting the role of the women ‘ministers’. Having a woman bishop, someone who would be presiding at big occasions and who would be the voice and face of the Church of Ireland in civic and political life would be something altogether different. It is surely hardly surprising that socially conservative church members would vote in a socially conservative manner at an electoral college. What would be a surprise would be if any of them at all supported a woman candidate.
It seems likely that the Crown Nominations Committee in England will send for Downing Street’s approval the name of a woman candidate long before a woman in Ireland approaches the necessary two-thirds majority in an Irish electoral college.
It was Niccolo Machiavelli who once wrote, ‘There is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through, than initiating change’. Barred from Machiavellian measures, the Church of Ireland seems unlikely to appoint a woman bishop for years to come.