The Mitre (Still) Fits Just Fine

Cross-posted (and slightly updated) from my Royal Parade Diary blog, where it seems to have gathered a bit of attention...

In the last two weeks I attended historic services in Perth and Melbourne where Australia's first two female Anglican bishops were consecrated. These were moving and joyful occasions, reflections of Anglican diversity as well as celebrations of the full inclusion of women and men in the three historic orders of Christian ministry.

In Perth, Trinity College alumna Archdeacon Kay Goldsworthy became the first Australian woman to join the episcopate when Archbishop Roger Herft and an impressive array of bishops clad in cope and mitre gathered around her in St George's Cathedral, as the congregation sang the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Among the bishops was another pioneer, Victoria Matthews, former Bishop of Edmonton in Canada and now elected Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. Laying hands on Kay, Bishop Victoria actually became the first woman to exercise a uniquely episcopal ministry in Australia, just ahead of the new colleague over whom she was praying. Speaking to the congregation, Bishop Victoria reminded us that we were not creating some new species called "woman bishop" but rather calling this woman, and others in future alongside men, to the apostolic ministry.

In Melbourne just over a week later, Canon Barbara Darling was made bishop by another crowd of episcopal colleagues, again including one woman - this time Bishop Kay Goldsworthy herself. This time the group was arrayed in the more sombre black, red and white convocation robes that are the traditional dress of Anglican bishops at Morning or Evening Prayer, but used on this occasion in deference to a "low-Church" sensibility still imposed on St Paul's Cathedral by local ecclesiastical politics. Bishop Barbara was handed a cope and mitre - but the liturgy did not provide her the chance to put them on.

The semiotics of liturgical garb are uniquely complex in Anglicanism, and arguments about them can seem twee or just absurd. However these details are reflections of the more explicit battles being waged in the wider Anglican Communion. While acceptance and inclusion of gay and lesbian members and ministers is the most prominent, the place of women in leadership remains one of them.

The robes worn in Melbourne, or rather the perceived necessity of not wearing cope and mitre, can be taken into two ways. First and positively, they represent the support for women's ministry by low-Church or evangelical Anglicans who often prefer that dress, as well as by the more high-Church or catholic wing arrayed around Bishop Kay in Perth. Bishop Barbara Darling is herself an evangelical, a former student and staff member of Ridley College, but has support and respect across the theological spectrum.

Negatively however, the exclusion or marginalization of "catholic" liturgical dress such as cope and mitre at St Paul's Cathedral, even at a time where more evangelical congregations and ministers in Melbourne are ignoring the minimal dress requirements for all Anglican clergy at public worship (i.e. the "surplice"), is startling. It reminds us that there is a less eirenic agenda, harking back to the Puritan strand of earlier Anglican history, that seeks to exclude aspects of ritual and theology that belong to Anglicanism's more catholic side, as well as women's leadership.

The tension is reflected in major upcoming meetings across the Anglican Communion. Bishops Barbara, Kay and Victoria will all attend the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in July. Some Australian and other conservative bishops have refused to attend Lambeth, and will only go to the "Global Anglican Futures Conference", where conservatives are seeking to articulate and build their alternative Anglican future. Although there will be more women at GAFCON than at Lambeth, there is a sort of give-away line in one authoritative apologia for the new meeting:

"Bishops and their wives, and clergy and laity, including the next generation of young leaders, will attend GAFCON"[1]

"Bishops and their wives" - the wives presumably also being among the laity (and perhaps even clergy?) - betrays not simply a male but a patriarchal mind-set, which must seem highly dubious to many evangelical as well as to liberal and catholic Anglicans.

I should add that whilen I am not sympathetic to the theological vision of GAFCON, I believe Anglicans of other cast should be willing to learn from the initiative it represents, and be open to such learning and cooperation as its actual results allow or demand.

Yet while the mainstream of Anglicanism lacks vision in many places in the West particularly, I believe history will show that the inclusion of women and men in ministry is a crucial area where we got it right. When women were first ordained deacon in 1986 and priest in 1992 there was enormous tension - even a bomb scare. By contrast, the events of the last few weeks in Perth and Melbourne have seemed the natural extension of an experience now widely-shared among Australian Anglicans, of productive and faithful leadership in ministry by women, alongside men.

The onus now lies on opponents of women's participation, very many participants in GAFCON included, to justify their own positions. Their arguments continue to exist, and their consciences must still be respected - but their capacity to dictate terms of exclusion has waned. We should be wary of attempts to distract or divide the Anglican Communion by those whose opposition to the proven and indeed compelling case for full inclusion of women is being obscured by the more contentious matter of including gays and lesbians.

Barbara Harris, the first woman made bishop in the Anglican Communion, said to those gathered at her conscration "The Mitre fits just fine!" It was a statement about more than vesture. I have already seen that Bishop Kay's mitre fits - and look forward to seeing the newer Bishop Barbara's mitre on as well.

[1] Canon Chris Sugden, in the Church Times of January 11 2008.


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