WOMEN BISHOPS WILL HAPPEN, BELIEVES ONE OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND’S FIRST FEMALE PRIESTS
The Reverend Prebendary Philippa Boardman is sitting in a quiet room of her East End church when she flashes a mischievous smile and lifts up her jacket to reveal a purple cardigan underneath. In the annals of protest it is hardly the most drastic of actions, but it is, nonetheless, a form of quiet, stubborn rebellion. Boardman has been wearing something purple ever since 20 November, when the Church of England’s General Synod saw to it that neither she nor any of her female colleagues would be wearing the shirt of a bishop any time soon.
“I came home on the tube that night and for the first time I felt ambivalent about wearing a dog collar, whereas for the past 20 years it’s been a very positive engagement with the public,” she says. “I thought: I’m working for an institution that has allowed women to be diminished in this way, and I just felt like … covering up the dog collar. But I thought, well, I have to put it on every day, I’ll have to think of something that will make me smile, that will motivate me. And every day since the vote I’ve worn purple.”
Boardman, 49, was one of the first women to become a priest in the Church of England, and still recalls walking into a “wall of joy” after her ordination in 1994. Then, the church was seen to have taken a giant step in the right direction. After last month’s vote, the situation has reversed. The church, already facing dwindling numbers and damaging splits, has been chastised as bigoted and ridiculed as irrelevant. Parliament is threatening intervention. Boardman, an Arsenal fan, gave a newspaper interview in which she regretted that the church, by restricting the house of bishops to men only, was not putting its “most gifted team on the pitch”.
Among the church’s 3,500 female clergy, morale is at rock-bottom. “I think it inevitably feels that you’re not being valued,” says Boardman, who, as well as dealing with her own hurt and frustration, has had to explain her church’s actions to her astonished congregation in Bow, east London. “I think in this community people are so used to both men and women being GPs and head-teachers that they are mystified by the fact that it’s different in the church,” she says. “People might say to me, if we have a confirmation, ‘why is it always that a male bishop comes?’ They assume there must be women but they haven’t come to us on that particular week. So when they started to see the headlines it was more like ‘how can this actually be?’ ”
In her parish, a deprived corner of the capital with more than its fair share of problems, Boardman is something of a hero. When she arrived in the mid-90s, St Paul Old Ford was derelict, its Victorian structure rotting away quietly after a decade of neglect. Under the watch of the enterprising new vicar, however, it was born again and reopened as a thoroughly modern church-cum-community centre, with a gym in the attic and a cafe in the entrance. They have Zumba, WeightWatchers and after-school Wii in the nave.
For her efforts, Boardman was last year appointed an MBE and there are many within the church community who believe she is also a prime candidate for the episcopate. But that, for the moment, is neither here nor there. One of the things that frustrates her most about the “interminable” women bishops debate is that it risks losing the church in internal wrangling and lessens its ability to act in the wider world. For a woman who first felt a calling in the 80s, when, she believes, the church showed itself to be “an effective opposition” to the Thatcher government, this is a cause of profound concern. “This process has taken a lot of time and energy,” she says. “Let’s take this community: big concerns over education, healthcare, the safety of children, gangs, drugs – so many things we should be engaging with. So that’s part of the frustration.”
In true Church of England style, the women bishops row is certain to run on into next year, and the year after that; probably also the year after that. Pressure is on the bishops to come up with a plan to present to the synod in July, and on the synod, in turn, to get its troublesome house of laity in order. It was among laypeople, where conservative evangelicals and traditional anglo-Catholics hold the most sway, that the legislation was scuppered – by six votes. Boardman, who herself comes from the open Evangelical tradition, objects to being lectured to on doctrine by her opponents on male “headship”. “I think it does such a disservice to biblical scholarship,” she says. The “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism, she explains, relies just as much on reason as it does on scripture and tradition.
Has the current impasse made her think about leaving for a church that does not discriminate against women? Boardman pauses. “I think that was a bigger question for me in 1992. Now, because there are 3,500 women priests, because there’s such support, I think it will happen.” She hopes that, instead of the complex legislation voted on last month, “something simpler” will come out of the bishops’ deliberations in December. She does not elaborate, but campaigners are pushing for a single-clause measure that would present the synod with a clear yes or no choice.
“I think the vote could have either been a catastrophe,” she says, with a glint in her eye, “or an opportunity.”