By Gail Goldsmith, staff writer
The current slate of nominees for the 27th presiding bishop offers up four men for the office. After nine years at the helm with Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman presiding bishop, it is striking to see no women among the nominees. All members of the House of Bishops are eligible for election as presiding bishop, though it has become common practice to nominate diocesan bishops with five years of episcopal experience, which further narrows eligibility within the small pool of women bishops.
Bishop Susan Goff, bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Virginia, says women were not overlooked in the nomination process, and some declined to take part “for reasons having to do with where they are in their lives.” Bishop Goff continued, “That there are no women among the nominees is not because women were overtly excluded, but it is the result of deeply ingrained structural and institutional sexism. There is still not a critical mass of women bishops that allows women to be represented in all levels of leadership.” There are 17 women in the House of Bishops. Three were active diocesan bishops at the time of the nominations. One had fewer than five years of experience, and one recently announced her retirement.
The Pipeline Problem
With so few women in the episcopate eligible for election, it might be a pipeline problem. Commonly used to describe hiring gaps in science and technology, the “pipeline problem” is a way to say there are not enough eligible or qualified women available to be hired for a position. To call the low number of women in the episcopate simply a pipeline problem, however, is to ignore the crucial fact that, from our discernment processes to our search processes, women in ministry face both personal and structural sexism. Someone built the pipeline and oversees the landscape around it.
There is a low burden of proof placed on the idea that, as a church, we are growing and changing on the role of women. We want to say we are; we want it to be true. Many of our community members, parishioners, lay leadership, seminarians and clergy can speak to the way women in ministry have encouraged them and helped them to grow in their understanding of God’s grace by their preaching, teaching and leadership. This is a blessing and a powerful recognition of the ministry of the women God called, but this is not always reflected in data—both anecdotal and in Church Pension Group’s reports.
Some women flourishing in some positions is not the end of structural sexism, though this flourishing testifies to their spiritual gifts, talents in their vocation and the support they have for their ministry. “Every once in a while I pick up people’s assumption that, because the Diocese of Virginia now has a woman bishop, we have ‘made it’ – we have overcome sexism. The reality is that we are far from finished with this work,” said Bishop Goff.
The personal sexism that supplements the structural shows in how the Church regards women in ministry. They are too often seen as the exception, as noteworthy by virtue of their gender rather than their ministry, or as objects of curiosity because of what they are wearing, what they do in their spare time and what their relationship status is. This strand of sexism shows up in expectations for women, and whether these expectations are met or not, those gendered expectations are still there.
It’s Not the House, It’s the Neighborhood
The question of why no women stood for nomination for the election of our next presiding bishop does not begin nor end with the House of Bishops. The question of whom to nominate for election depends on who is available, interested, and feels called to it.
The demographic makeup of who will be presiding bishop depends first on the demographic makeup of priests. Structural sexism is seen in the current data on ordinations, employment and gender in State of the Clergy 2012: A Report for the Episcopal Church, compiled by Church Pension Group.
“State of the Clergy” analyzes composition of the orders of ordained ministry by age, gender, and geography:
- More men are ordained than women, but by a small margin. Of recent ordinands, 52% are male and 48% are female.
- “With no exceptions, the average ages of newly ordained women are higher than those of newly ordained men in every province.”
- The small gap in ordinations by gender grows larger when other factors are analyzed: “There is a 24 percent gap in the percentage of currently employed, recently ordained men and women.” This is consistent with the 32 percent (employment) gap between all active male clergy (66 percent) and all active female clergy (34 percent).”
What picture of pastoral authority are we working with? According to this data, at the time of ordination, the average age of women is higher than that of men. In the Diocese of Virginia, according to the diocesan office’s database, there are two women rectors under 42, one 33 years old and called at 29. The youngest male rector is 29, called at 28. There are 10 men under 42 at the helm of Diocese of Virginia parishes; four of those lead multi-priest parishes. Though it may be unintentional, this shows that the same kind of authority is accorded to men at a younger age than it is to women. God’s call is not based on gender, but the data show the modern Church is still beholden to perceptions that imbue gender with a higher weight in the considerations of ordination and calling to a parish or a position.
In the early days of the Church, the words, service and spiritual gifts of disciples and apostles were understood in a social and religious system that privileged the pastoral authority of men over that of women. Does our church really still have this kind of understanding?
The data in The Episcopal Church Office of Research’s 2014 breakdown of parish priest positions by gender for each domestic diocese take into account the changes in availability of parish positions by analyzing who is currently holding what kind of title—senior priest, solo priest or curate/associate. Here are some of its findings:
- Women are more likely to be solo priests than senior priests.
- In 14 dioceses, no women lead a staff of multiple clergy. In 24, only one does.
- By percentage, women are more likely to be in curate/associate positions than men.
In bishop search processes, leadership experience counts. How are parishes constructing ideas of leadership, experience and prestige in the process of calling clergy? Do these give men a privilege over women? If they do, the hiring process is creating the pipeline problem that impacts the necessary experience of candidates for the episcopacy. Bishops Curry and Smith served as rectors of large, multi-staff parishes; Bishops Breidenthal and Douglas served in positions at prestigious seminaries. A diocese’s bishop search is a decision about who will be in the House of Bishops, and therefore a decision about who might be considered for nomination as presiding bishop.
If the precedents for male-biased employment and ordination hold true, presiding bishop elections in the future may face the same fate, proving Katharine Jefferts Schori to be an anomaly.
A Call to Go Beyond the Status Quo
Since the available data sorts by gender and age, these reports do not break out other groups whose pastoral authority might face external challenges of bias to their spiritual gifts and leadership. Sexism interlocks with other social factors. If our statistics on sexism, a long-acknowledged problem, are so marked, what is our record on cissexism, the presumption that gender is essential and binary, and heterosexism, the affirmation of only opposite-sex relationships? Classism exerts a strong hold on access to theological education. Sexism and racism doubly bind women of color. To recognize and address sexism constructively requires knowledge and action on these issues as well. The Episcopal Church has a higher calling than to reflect and sustain cultural ills in how its leaders are called, formed and supported in their ministry.
If Bishop Michael Curry is elected presiding bishop, his leadership would offer the Episcopal Church many gifts, but a sudden exorcism of racism would not be one of them. As we saw in Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s term, sexism was not solved by the elevation of a member of the clergy to higher visibility. However, that visibility has led to recognition, conversation and healing in institutional imagination and practice.
What we desperately need is a Church that looks beyond superficial characteristics like sex and places the most qualified candidates in leadership, whatever their demographics. But to become the most qualified candidate, one must first be given opportunities to find and develop her gifts – from youth group, to campus ministry, to seminary, to the parish, to the office of the presiding bishop. We as a Church must find and siphon off sexism and our other toxins at every stretch of the pipeline, or we stand in the way of allowing God’s own to respond to God’s call.
Correction: There are two women rectors under 42 in the Diocese of Virginia, the article originally posted that there is only one. Center Aisle* regrets the error. *Center Aisle provided Gail Goldsmith with this information.
Categories: Presiding Bishop