Church under pressure to highlight discrimination against women

Pressure has come on the Church of England to highlight any discrimination against women within its hierarchy and leadership structures.

Women and the Church (WATCH), a fringe group on the Church's synod, has called for a wholesale "gender audit" to expose "any under-representation" at all levels of the Church hierarchy. The systematic review of all committees and bodies that make behind-the-scenes decisions within the Church aims to promote the "full inclusion of all women in Church life".

The Church of England's second most senior cleric, Archbishop of York John Sentamu, at the consecration of Bishop Libby Lane last year.Phil Noble/Reuters

Rev Stephen France, a member of the national synod and vice-chair of WATCH, told Christian Today: "We're far from having any realistic representation across the Church bodies."

He added: "By no means is there full equality."

The group launched a "gender justice policy for the Church of England" at the synod meeting in York on Saturday. It says the "concept of gender justice is rooted in the biblical vision" and says it "aims to...heal the scars of centuries of discrimination and oppression".

The policy also calls for the theology of gender, which often advocates for God to be referred to as "she" rather than "he", to inform Church practice.

Speaking at the launch of the policy, chair of WATCH Hilary Cotton said: "While some progress has been made in gender justice in recent years, most notably women bishops, now is the time for the Church of England to embody and promote gender justice both in its internal structures and in its external engagement with the world."

But it is unlikely the motion will be accepted in the immediate future. Time is limited and the Church's governing synod is embroiled in deep disagreements over human sexuality and whether to accomodate gay relationships. This is likely to occupy most of the synod's next session, leaving little room for it to consider WATCH's suggestion. France told Christian Today he hoped the audit would be accepted in time to carry out a full report by the end of synod's current five-year cycle in 2019.

It is now nearly two years since the Church of England allowed women bishops. The first woman bishop, Libby Lane, was consecrated in January 2015, more than 20 years after the Church allowed female priests in 1992.

But despite a number of women being fast-tracked into senior roles, the vast majority of senior roles within the Church are still occupied by men. Just seven out of 73 bishops are women, according to the Church's latest ministry statistics. Three of those seven have been appointed in the last six months. On synod, the Church's national governing body, three out of 53 positions on the senior House of Bishops are taken by women.

The wider picture is different with women making up 42 per cent of places across the whole synod. In the lower House of Laity, women are in a slight majority with 50.5 per cent of positions.

In the wider Church, women make up one quarter of the total clergy, a steady rise of the last three years.