Fascinating Ladies: Catherine Ogle, Dean of Birmingham

Rachel Stewart interviewed the Very Rev’d Catherine Ogle to find out why and what implications the vote on ‘no’ to women bishops will have…

The Very Revd Catherine Ogle with June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury (left) and Vivienne Faull, Dean of York (right) at Catherine's installation in 2010.

The Very Revd Catherine Ogle with June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury (left) and Vivienne Faull, Dean of York (right) at Catherine’s installation in 2010.

What was you reaction when you heard the results of the vote?

It felt like a body-blow. I was desperately disappointed because it give such a poor picture of the Church of England and its ministry to the nation that we are called to serve. Across the country women priests are valued and completely accepted. 42 out of 44 dioceses voted for women bishops. This ‘no’ vote by the house of laity felt so wrong, and unfortunately like some kind of referendum on women’s ministry, which it was never supposed to be. 

Does the issue essentially boil down to the question of accepting women in positions of superiority within the Church?

Church leadership goes hand in hand with service, so it would be more accurate to say that it’s a question of accepting women in positions of over-sight. Opposition to women bishops has a great deal to do with the theology of women and leadership. Many types of service are acceptable, but not all types of leadership and representation.

Why is this perceived to be such a threat to tradition, and how do opponents justify their position?

There are broadly two poles of opposition. Some opposition is based in the belief that the priest must be male to represent Christ and that the C of E should not make this change unless the whole church (RC and Orthodox) changes. The other pole of opposition is based on a reading of scripture that believes women are equal to men but have a complementary role. Men have a ‘headship’ role in the family, women cannot be in over-sight over men in the church.

What are the arguments against these voices of opposition?

Lots of people, including the Prime Minister, have said that the Church should change with the times. But the best argument for Christians, for ‘equal episcopacy’ comes from promises at the heart of our faith tradition; that women and men are equally created in the image of God, baptised as equals and follow a Saviour who loves us equally. Christian women know that Jesus Christ sets us free from all that restricts, enslaves and diminishes us. We are baptised ‘into Christ’ and women are called to represent Christ, you don’t have to be a man to do that. The early church may have marginalised women’s leadership, but this was an accommodation to its own culture; we don’t see that in the liberating promises of Jesus.

The Church of England has often had a ‘prophetic’ role with the other churches, it’s going to be a good thing when we join the other parts of the church that already consecrate women as bishops.

Has the success of the 1994 agreement to ordain women priests not appeased the worries of those in opposition?

Throughout my 20 years as a Minister I have seen the situation change completely amongst the general public and in the church. The churches in which I’ve served have welcomed a woman minister and I’ve never had opposition. Women Ministers are now completely ‘normal’. There are still some churches where women have never preached or led a service of Holy Communion, but gradually women priests, with tact and good humour, break down barriers.

The opposition to women bishops comes from some who don’t agree with this ‘highest oversight’ role or from those who don’t agree with women’s priesthood for theological reasons.

The rejection of women bishops is also about fears for the future of those who disagree: opponents are seeking assurance that they will retain their place in the Church of England. This is absolutely right – but its proving very difficult indeed for us to find a way of all living together with integrity

Do you think the issue will be raised again before 2015? If so, how do you see the result being any different?

The Bishops seem determined to try to resolve this before 2015 (the year when elections will be held to form a new General Synod – the body making this decision). But I am unsure that they have many options. The legislation that has failed was the result of careful work over a decade, I am not sure what can be achieved in the next few months. 

It seems that the Church can be a difficult place for women to be heard. Do you feel women are held back?

The Church is just as frail as any other institution, in many ways. But women are preaching and teaching in our churches every week. Half of the people in training for C of E ministry are women. Women certainly make up more than half of most congregations! Change has happened quite rapidly and I guess that my appointment here as first woman Dean of Birmingham reflects that change. Women struggle to be heard in many walks of life but for lots of women the church is where they are able to find their voice, and make a difference. We have a ‘stained glass ceiling’ in respect of women bishops, but it’s not the whole story.

Do you think this issue has relevance for society as a whole? Do we need institutions like the Church to set an example by treating women equally?

Yes. There is something incredibly important in the symbolism of religious leadership. Imagine seeing a woman presiding at a Royal wedding or state funeral. Women in Christian leadership remind us of the dignity of women and men created in the image of God.

At a time when women are brutalised, trivialised and victimised in the reality of domestic and sexual violence, or the virtual reality of our modern media, I find it more important than ever to say, ‘The Christian faith gives women dignity and worth.’ Women bishops would help make that statement crystal clear.