Can a leopard change its spots?

by Nigel Taber-Hamilton

I left the Church of England for good on October 4, 1979, at about two o’clock in the afternoon.

That was when my British Airways flight from London touched down in San Francisco, and I returned to the place I had, only a year previously, spent a year as a World Council of Churches Ecumenical Fellow.

Born and bred in London until that first overseas trip at the age of 24, ordained a deacon in London’s Southwark Cathedral in 1978, I left Britain in 1979 for a complex of reasons that, I have come to realize, can be summed up by this short sentence: The Church of England is always a train-wreck waiting to happen.

This last week, at the C. of E.’s General Synod, the waiting ended.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! My first year in Berkeley CA – 1977, at the Episcopal Church’s west-coast seminary, C.D.S.P. – had introduced me to the first group of Episcopal women who knew without a doubt when they entered seminary that upon graduation they would be ordained deacons then priests.

The months after my return to London from California in August of 1978 proved to be a stark reminder that it would be a very long time before women were ordained priests in my homeland. I survived only a year in the Church of England’s class-conscious, paternalistic structures before throwing in the towel and returning to what I had come to recognize during that year in the United States as my spiritual home: the Episcopal Church.

The sad truth for women in England is that my adoptive province which ordained me a priest in the Church of God in 1982 (

and several times flirted with consecrating him a bishop, ~ed. note) ordained women as bishops five years before the English Church ordained women as priests.

No human institution is perfect; if it was then it would mean that Jesus had returned. But the Episcopal Church has two things going for it: We’re willing to make the hard decisions and stick with them; and we understand better than many the meaning of baptism and the importance in particular of embracing the ministry of the baptized as the fundamental ministry from which all other ministries receive their credibility and authority. As a priest I am, first and foremost, a member of the baptized – as is my bishop, Gregory H. Rickel and every other Episcopalian – every other Christian.

As a member of the baptized my responsibility is to serve others, including other members of the baptized – as is their responsibility toward me; we’re all servants or none of us is – there’s no in-between.

This seems to be a truth the Church of England has forgotten – if it ever really knew it. Mired in institutionalism, petty bickering, and the surrender of its integrity to extremists, the C. of E. is living in a fantasy world:

• Bishops think they can impose modifications to legislation passed by 96% of the dioceses and are surprised when many object;

• laity think that they have no responsibility to those they represent, voting any which way with no consequences, and are surprised by the outpouring of anger toward them;

• and the rest of the nation – long used to living with (or in spite of) the idiosyncrasies of the state Church – even they are shocked by the utter disarray of an institution that, commanded by its founder to be inclusive and compassionate, has so spectacularly failed in this core mission and identity to do either for at least half its members.

One wonders if there are any three English bishops out there with the guts to get together and do what the Bishop and the Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen and the Bishop of Ross and Caithness did for the Episcopal Church in consecrating Samuel Seabury (our first bishop) on November 14, 1784: consecrate a woman as a bishop in England.

Probably not.

It’s hard for a leopard to change its spots.

The Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton is rector of St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, WA. He is the Interfaith Officer of the Diocese of Olympia and a former Deputy to General Convention

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6 Comments
  1. Brilliant idea about three English bishops doing an irregular ordination of a woman to the episcopacy. Several of us discussed this approach to having women bishops in England on Facebook, and the conclusion for most was that it couldn’t be done for various reasons. I say, “Why not?” Kudos, Nigel for your what-if.

    June Butler

  2. Nitpicker

    I wrote recently to an American woman priest, now serving in England, with a similar thought to that suggested by Nigel the Younger. However, my thought was that, when there’s a suitable woman candidate to fill a vacancy in the Episcopate, she should travel to a more enlightened church–such as in Cuba or Swaziland (but more likely Canada or the U.S.)– for ordination to the Episcopate, with the blessing of the appropriate English archbishop (Canterbury or York).

    She could then be appointed to the vacancy in England. Sure, there would be protests, but they would fade as soon as a new General Synod is appointed that is willing to pass the necessary legislation.

    Nitpicker

    (Nigel Renton)

  3. And Nigel (Nitpicker), imagine if the ordaining jurisdiction invited a woman bishop, perhaps from another jurisdiction to join the ordination. Perhaps a way to make an act of protest also a symbol of a new unity?

  4. I suggested the day of the General Synod vote that perhaps (assuming she is in favor of the measure) the Supreme Governor of the Church of England could stir things up by appointing a woman to a vacant See and just see what happens….

  5. Kurt

    I think the idea of consecrating an Englishwoman a bishop here in the US, and thus allowing her to be appointed to a see in the UK is a great idea! Are there at least three American bishops (retired, perhaps?) who are willing to do the deed!?

    Kurt Hill

    Brooklyn, NY

  6. Ann Fontaine

    One of the problems with all these ideas is the lack of collegiality for the woman. One reason the Philadelphia 11 were ordained together was to give each other support. Whoever is a first woman to be a bishop in CoE will have to suffer slings and arrows – ask +Barbara Harris. Will need a sense of humor (humour) and mental toughness.

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