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Electing women to the episcopacy: a double bind?

Electing women to the episcopacy: a double bind?

There are three women and no men on the slate of nominees for suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Maryland. The Rev. Sara Irwin has some thoughts about that:

I wouldn’t find it remarkable if a slate were all men, necessarily, so for parity’s sake maybe we ought not find it remarkable that a slate is all women. The candidates are strong. We need more women bishops, particularly since it’s a life appointment and, for church-wide governance purposes, a bishop is a bishop. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that for Maryland, with a male bishop safely at the helm, it feels creative and cool to have a woman in second place when the stakes don’t seem as high.

I want female bishops. I want us all to “lean in” and take our place at the table and not be ashamed to ask where the women’s bathroom is. The thing that the Maryland election reveals, though, is the impossible place that this patriarchal double bind has put us in. Yes, we want women to be in these jobs. But for every candidate in one election to be a woman, it just feels like gender is being elevated to the level of qualifying credential. And that’s where we can’t win. That’s where having all women feels almost as bad as having no women. And that’s where it’s so clear what a broken system this is: when something that you 100% want to be the outcome (more women in senior positions) is sure to happen, but you just don’t want it to happen this way.

As someone who believes we need more women in the House of Bishops, I’d be interested in hearing how you all think that might best be accomplished.


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Kris Lewis

“As long as our church operates on a hierarchical model where being a bishop is the crown of your career instead of a particular vocation to which people of any age or gender or shape of parish career might be called to, we’re going to fail to see the skills of women as well as men.”


And I do think we need to pay attention to the dynamic that makes women more tenable as candidates for suffragan than for diocesan, however and wherever that dynamic operates.

Paul Woodrum

Women are hardly a minority in TEC though they may be, indeed are, in the HOB. But what about all those other minorities out there. Where is their claim? Gay, Lesbian, Hispanic, Asian, Black? Seems we have a long way to go to correct systemic inequities. Have power and prejudice checkmated the Spirit?


I’m curious as to the recent record of suffragans or assistant bishops, later being elected diocesans. Does getting elected suffragan shunt you off to the side (under the Stained-Glass Ceiling), or is it really a stepping stone?

JC Fisher

Emily Mellott

Oh, I’m quite convinced the Holy Spirit did good discernment work with Maryland, and this slate is the result. And it’s worth noting that the Spirit did this work in a context where an all-female slate highlights long-standing and systemic inequities – worth attention and debate.

There are fixes within the system for these inequities – Nancy and John both mention some in their comments. I hope we as a church pursue those, even knowing that they require disproportionate work from the underrepresented (recruiting candidates who exceed the qualifications and the exceed the stamina of easier candidates; requiring voting blocs).

I think, however, that a really key piece of the puzzle appears in Sara’s full post:

“As long as our church operates on a hierarchical model where being a bishop is the crown of your career instead of a particular vocation to which people of any age or gender or shape of parish career might be called to, we’re going to fail to see the skills of women as well as men.”

I believe we need to look hard at the unwritten “career” status of bishops, and consider a very different way of discerning the call of a bishop. If we can break down the habits that make bishop elections “achievements” and “success” based without our even noticing, we’ll be a long way toward a more diverse House of Bishops, not to mention a little closer to the Kingdom of God.

Mary Novello

So it’s not possible that the Holy Spirit came up with the best candidates and they just happened to be women? For 2000 years (give or take) men have had no problem accepting only male candidates. Let’s not overthink this.

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