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This week the Church of England’s General Synod voted to allow women as bishops.
And even though this marks a historic movement for the Church of England and for women called by God to serve in church leadership, the most intriguing thing to me has been the conversations this has opened up about how long change takes in the church.
Huffington Post captured the sentiments of many in their headline: “Women Bishops Approved by Church of England…Finally.”
It’s only taken 2,000 years, right?
Sensing the frustration of many at how long this decision has taken to come about, Zach Hoag wrote this post to argue that the decision was not too slow in coming: “3 Reasons the Church of England Decision Is Right on Time.”
So, which is it? Was the decision too long in coming? Was it right on time? Was it far too early (as those who oppose the ordination of women argue), as in it never should have happened at all?
In order to answer this question, it’s important to understand when it all began for the Church of England. And, in so doing, look at how long deep, adaptive institutional change takes.
The history of the Church of England is complex. The seeds of the Church of England were planted early, when a Christian church began to grow in the Roman colony of Britain. By the early fourth century bishops from Britain were represented in early church councils (such as the Council of Arles). As centuries passed, tensions and divisions regarding papal authority began to grow, and in the 1500s, Henry VIII (whose marriage the pope refused to annul) led the Church of England to break from Rome.
The movement to ordain women to the priesthood began in 1966, but it was not until 1975 that a motion was passed that showed there were “no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood.” Even despite this clear and concise statement, the ordination of women to the office of priest was still not allowed. And, even though the 1975 motion found no objections to ordaining women as priests, it was not until November 11, 1992 that all three Houses voted with at least 2/3 majority to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Twenty-six years from the time the movement began until the time women could be ordained. It seems like an eternity. No doubt there were women who had felt the call to ordained ministry and were never able to serve because so much time passed.
It would be unfair and unfeeling to say that the process was quick, expedient, and painless.
The process was none of those things. And to argue that things happened right on time on this issue would be to discount the pain, long-suffering, and shattered dreams that accompanied waiting so long for the bars to be opened to women who wanted nothing more than to be faithful to God.
And yet, taking a long view of history, twenty-six years seems like nothing at all compared to the nearly 500 years from the time the Church of England broke from Rome, all the while women’s voices were being excluded from leadership.
In 2000, theological study began on the role of women in the episcopate. Fourteen years later, all three Houses voted to allow women into the office of Bishop. For fourteen long years, women who were gifted and called leaders could be priests, but not bishops. For fourteen long years, the Church of England missed out on their gifts and voices. So, it is fitting to say finally this door is open to women. It is also fitting to note that though change moves much more slowly than we would like, in the last thirty years, Christianity has experienced sweeping, broad, and quick changes. Both the quickness and the pained slowness of change in the church must be held together because they are both true, even though they seem to be contradictory.
The history of the ordination of women in my denomination – Reformed Church in America (RCA) – followed a similar trajectory. Although women were involved in leading women’s groups as early as the 1800s, it was not until 1972 that the offices of elder and deacon were opened to women. In 1979, the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament was opened to women, but it took until 2013 for the RCA to remove the “Conscience Clauses” from the Book of Church Order that had continued to undermine the denomination’s stance on the ordination of women to all offices.
The movement in the Church of England (and other denominations and Christian traditions) can teach us a lot about leading change in our denominations and congregations.
1. Institutional change is painfully slow. It just is. Even when leaders sense the need for change, it is a painfully slow process. Even when leaders speak up loudly and champion movement in congregations and on denominational levels, change is hard. It is slow. It can be frustrating, angering, and even lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. Whether change takes 500 years or just a few years, it takes far longer than we ever want it to.
2. Institutional change may be slow, but it is speeding up. Making changes to long-standing institutional hierarchies and long-held beliefs is scary. And when those changes are happening to one’s very worldview or ideology, resistance to change is even stronger. But, when one change happens and the results turn out to be beautiful and encouraging, there will be slightly less resistance to the next necessary change, whatever that change may be. This doesn’t mean change will happen quickly, but it may come more quickly than previous changes. This should give hope to Christians who sense God’s calling to lead change in the church. Change may be slow, but it’s speeding up.
3. People in positions of privilege must not invalidate the pain and injustice experienced by the disenfranchised. Change will not feel slow and painful to you when there is nothing at stake for you in the change. Change does not feel slow to you when you are able to live, and move, and function freely within the broken system. When a movement swells within the church for change, those who are in a position of privilege should never, ever say to the person or group who is disenfranchised, “Just be patient,” or “God will get it done at just the right time.” Even though God will be faithful to bring about needed change in the life of the church, it does not make the pain of those who are voiceless any less real. If you are in a position of privilege on an issue, listen to those who are marginalized. Validate their experiences, and then ask them how you can best champion the change that needs to happen.
4. Change is a process, and discernment is key. Part of why change takes so long is that change is a process. And, in the church, it is a corporate process. One person realizing the need for change takes time, and it is painful; a whole community realizing the need for change takes exponentially more time, and can be even more painful. Leaders in communities need to be in constant discernment about how to lead change. We need to be patient with people who just aren’t there yet, while also finding ways to give voice to the change that needs to take place.
As leaders in the church, and as Christians who see the need for change, we can learn a lot about deep, lasting change from the Church of England. We can see its slowness, take note of the struggle, and yet have hope that the movement of the Holy Spirit will continue to bring forth the change we so desperately need as we seek to be faithful to God.