A Spirit-Filled Tipping Point Toward Gender Equity in The Episcopal Church
by Mary Gray-Reeves
“Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom and what arrived was the church!” (Alfred Firmin Loisy, French Roman Catholic Theologian, 1902)
Every year in The Diocese of El Camino Real we have a theme to help us focus our spiritual growth and transformation as The Episcopal Church in our patch of California. We have had “Wonder”, “Churches Without Walls”, “Citizenship”, etc. This year’s theme is “Be the Church”. I must admit to being reminded of Chevy Chase in a funny scene in Caddyshack where his character is seeking to mentor his caddy in the game of golf: “Be the ball, Danny, Be the ball…..” Danny the caddy looks very confused.
What does it mean to inhabit, exhibit, become – be – a ball – or the Church – especially as we seek to faithfully walk the way of Jesus? Where are the places where being the church and proclaiming the kingdom diverge? How might we lessen that gap?
Gender bias is surely one of those places.
The process of General Convention demands our best efforts. We (eventually) allow The Spirit to work through us to declare our institutional values and identity there; we name our ecclesial soul in both its hopeful truth and deepest struggle. The local level of being the church is the reality check to the meta-narrative proclaimed at General Convention. The daily sustenance of the Christian life takes place in our home church and diocese; face-to-face, soul-to-soul. But, just as we are a global church that varies greatly at the provincial level, so too, does our churchwide message often differ from local practice.
For many years now the General Convention has resolved again and again to become more inclusive and diverse. More racial diversity. More gender diversity. More socio-economic diversity. We have named this value and identity for years; we have rejoiced and said it is good. But we have not achieved the vision. We The Episcopal Church as a whole are still very white, educated beyond the average American, and enjoying more financial and employment stability than most in our country. Our clergy leadership remains predominately white and male, especially at the executive level of our institutional life. We are burdened with a stubborn income disparity between male and female clergy. (See 2014 Compensation Report https://www.cpg.org/global/research/reports-statistics/)
There is work to do to be the church we say we are.
The House of Bishops embodies these realities quite glaringly. We are overwhelmingly white, male, and financially well-off. Many bishops are disturbed by this. At General Convention it is particularly obvious as the wider church gathers. We hear many comments from those who watch us from the gallery. The House of Bishops and indeed, most of the executive staffs in our church are not reflective of our values or our local lay leadership, where a much greater numeric balance of women and men serve faithfully together. In our practice of raising, naming and electing leaders, we fail to overcome our systemic bias to be the diversity we claim to be.
There were no women on the Presiding Bishop’s Nomination list (and since there were apparently many who were surprised I was not on the list, to be personally clear, even before my husband’s tragic death in June 2014, I discerned that I was called to remain the Bishop of El Camino Real). It was good news that this all-male list was so shocking. It is progress. There was a time when we might have shrugged our shoulders and thought, ‘oh well’. That there were no women as finalists was not the fault of the nominating committee or of individual women, but rather was symptomatic of how hard it is to move an organization without persistent and strategic commitment to the work of justice and cultural change at every level. In the end, there were only a few women who could run for election; a fact that points to the reality that the percentage of women elected to the episcopate has not increased, but instead lost ground in the last ten years.
The numbers tell the story. I am thankful we are allowing them to speak their truth. I am thankful to be in a church where our values stare us down and challenge us to do something about the wide gap between the vision of the Kingdom of God and the reality of the Church. Indeed, the Spirit is working here in our midst. We can build on this moment. Let us not waste it! Today, I am talking about gender imbalance in our church, but wherever we can work toward reconciliation and healing, we should do it for Jesus’ sake. How wonderful that we have an equal amount of outrage regarding our racial divides. It is another glaring gap between Kingdom values and Church practice. While our outrage may seem a small milestone, how wonderful that we are not willing to let this opportunity pass by.
There is a movement – join it!
As a woman bishop I find myself in a position of mentoring other women. I hear their stories; I hear the challenges of being female clergy in a largely hierarchical and male reality. One would have hoped the stories have changed over the years we have ordained women in our church, but they haven’t really. The same stories of bias and disparity, some subtle and some glaring, that have been spoken for more 30 years, are repeating in new generations. They are disturbingly predictable.
Systemic Change is the hardest kind. It takes a long time. It takes the participation of everybody. It is change from the inside-out that requires discipline and commitment to become who we say we are. Systemic change requires us to notice and be attentive to our most visceral prejudices; to be bold in naming them and changing them. This is at once painful and a deep relief. The Spirit is inviting us to know the miracle of grace that can lead us through even our most intractable brokenness. What an honor to be welcomed into this work of the Kingdom!
I want to call your attention to some places where men and women are working together toward greater gender equity in our church. There are surely more opportunities than those mentioned here. If you know of them, please name them on social media and here on Episcopal Café, so we can all find our place in the work that lies ahead.
Some resources for the movement.
“Cast Wide the Net” The Executive Council Committee for the Status of Women was charged by the General Convention and Executive Council to assemble a toolkit. This is “Cast Wide the Net” and is a resource designed to help individual women leaders as well as our institution (such as Transition Ministry) to negotiate through and work toward healing our gender disparity in the church. You may find this resource at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/cast-wide-net.
In the last few months the Facebook network Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling has connected ordained women seeking to lessen gender disparity in our church. A few thousand Facebook members joined within two weeks of its launch (right after the PB list was released) and good conversation and networking is happening there.
Gatherings for ordained women coming up next year
Beautiful Authority (for now find it on Facebook, but a website is coming soon!) This three-day gathering, started in 2011, is an opportunity for the formation of collegial friendships and co-mentoring networks between women clergy. Together participants nurture, support, and empower one another to deepen their vocational and personal strengths as clergy, mothers, spouses and partners and organizational leaders. Over 80 women clergy have now participated in Beautiful Authority.
BA Conferences in 2016 include:
Beautiful Authority for women clergy, ages 35ish-45ish, June 6-9, 2016, Dumas Bay Retreat Center, Seattle WA. Contact: The Right Reverend Mary Gray-Reeves, at Marybeth@edecr.org.
Beautiful Authority for women clergy, 50ish+, May 24-27, 2016, Richmond Hill Center in Richmond, VA. Contact: The Reverend Susanna Singer, at email@example.com.
There is hope for a Beautiful Authority conference in Province IV sometime in 2016. Watch “Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling” on Facebook for news about this possibility.
Leading Women – A Conference to gather ordained women to hear more about the work of executive level vocations in the church, including the episcopate, cardinal rectorship, and diocesan staff. Katharine Jefferts-Schori will be our keynote speaker; Mary Gray-Reeves, Stefani Schatz, Jane Shaw and Helen Svoboda-Barber are lead organizers. This is scheduled for May 29 – June 2, The Mercy Center, Burlingame, CA. Application information will be available soon. Contact: Canon Stefani Schatz at, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Formation Cohorts – From this event, co-mentoring groups will be organized and supported for women called toward discernment of the episcopate. This is now known as WEEL, Women Embodying Executive Leadership. This pilot program currently takes the form of a cohort that meets together four times over 18 months to support one another and engage in shared discernment and formation about how God might be calling each person to embody their own leadership skills in the episcopate. Results from this first cohort will be compiled by Rev. Svoboda-Barber’s DMin Project and will be shared widely with the church, as well as give shape to future cohort groups. Contact: email@example.com.
I wish to give thanks to members of the House of Bishops and several dioceses who have and who continue to offer financial and administrative support toward this movement. There is a broad base of leadership that has emerged at all levels of the church. Together let us strengthen our values as a church, proclaim the kingdom and walk the way of Jesus. Every little step and every big stride makes a difference!
The Rt Rev Mary Gray-Reeves is Bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real in California