John Sentamu: Alleluia that at last the Church shall have its women bishops

TODAY, in York Minster, history will be made. Libby Lane, who is already a priest in the Church, will be the first woman in England to be made a bishop. It will be a momentous occasion: a solemn act of worship and a jubilant celebration.

Rev Libby Lane after the announcement by the Church of England that she will be appointed as the first female bishop.

Solemn, because every bishop’s consecration acknowledges that no human being is worthy to serve God without divine help. That is why Libby and the Minster congregation will earnestly entreat the Almighty to empower her for the task.

Jubilant, because it is central to the Christian faith that when Jesus Christ came to live among us He called ordinary people to serve him joyfully and confidently. He still does. Christ compensates for our inadequacy: the symbol of the cross on which he was crucified carries the meaning that God makes good where mortals fall short.

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At the heart of the service will be the Holy Communion: a re-enactment of the Last Supper in which Christ does for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves. Holy Communion is always a celebration. Christ’s generosity prompts our gratitude. I am thrilled to be presiding over this wonderful service.

Other bishops will join me in the service as we follow a practice originating in the Bible, by placing hands on Libby’s head to mark her out for a special position of leadership in the Church. This procedure, which has been passed down from one generation of bishops to another, is known as ‘apostolic succession’.

Most bishops at today’s service will be male but, and here’s another ‘first’, I have invited women bishops from other parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Porvoo and Meissen Ecumenical partners to join us. 

The Rt Rev Helen-Ann Hartley is coming from her Diocese in Waikato in New Zealand; she was actually born here and used to teach theology in England before being called to serve on the other side of the world.  Bishop Margaret Vertue, having travelled from her Diocese of False Bay in South Africa, will be joining in too – her diocese is twinned with the Archdeaconry of Cleveland in the Diocese of York.

Also taking part will be the Rt Rev Chilton Knudsen, an American bishop of longstanding who now assists in the Diocese of Long Island. From Ireland’s Diocese of Meath and Kildare, the Most Rev Patricia Storey will come to participate in the ‘laying-on of hands’ at Libby’s consecration. The Bishop of Iceland, Agnes Sigurðardóttir, and the retired bishop of the Diocese of Lund in Sweden, the Rt Rev Christina Odenberg, will be taking part. The Bishop of Munich and Upper Bavaria, the Rt Rev Susanne Breit-Kebler, will also be present.

Women have featured among the Church’s leaders from earliest times. During Christ’s public ministry there were occasions when he relied on a group of women for his upkeep.

Later, the first person to carry the astonishing message of Christ’s resurrection from death was a woman, Mary Magdalene. The men she told thought she was nuts until they saw the evidence themselves.

Some of the earliest Christian converts were women. Let me give you a few examples. In the New Testament, Eunice is singled out as the mother of Timothy, who was to become missionary-companion of St Paul. He owed his personal faith in Jesus to her example and teaching.

It’s a wonderful coincidence that the Rev Libby Lane will be ordained bishop on the very day in the Church’s calendar, January 26, when we commemorate St Timothy and Titus (another of Paul’s companions). If it hadn’t been for Eunice’s discipleship, we wouldn’t have Timothy. She reminds me of how much I owe to my beloved mother, for her unfaltering faith and witness. 

Then there is Lydia, a merchant in what is now Turkey, who was the first Christian in Europe and a leading 
light in a prayer group even before 
she was formally baptised as a Christian.

Phoebe, who is referred to as a deacon or servant in the local church, was also described as a patron or guardian of the faith. Scholars who disagree over the significance of those terms (might they mean she was ordained?) do not dispute that Christ described himself as a servant. That is a most honourable role and a requirement for all clergy.

There are many other significant women who played their unique part in the early Christian story: Rhoda, Tabitha, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis and so on. Of course, first of all is the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, chosen by God for the highest honour ever conferred on a mortal.

From that day to this, women have often been the backbone of the Church, unheralded, unsung, invaluable. I will mention just one more, because she was one of those who served in Yorkshire: St Hilda.

Hilda was an Abbess (head of an abbey of nuns). You must have seen the spectacular ruins of Whitby Abbey (644) towering over the town and harbour. In the 7th century, Hilda’s Abbey was host to an important council, the ‘Synod of Whitby’, held by King Oswill of Northumbria in order to establish unity of practice in the date of observing Easter and the style of shaving the head (tonsure) of 
monks within his territory, where diversity had hitherto been accepted (the Celtic custom and the Roman practice).

The King decided to follow the Roman practice throughout Northumbria and those clergy who would not change withdrew to Iona and later Ireland. From this date onwards, the trend in English Christianity is towards unity and orthodoxy.

A local legend says that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honour of Saint Hilda. I recommend you wear a flat cap if you propose to check that out for yourself!

It is high time we had women bishops. I have been praying and working for this day. In a few years’ time when more and more women will be bishops, I predict we shall be wondering how we ever managed without them. Their consecrated gifts and experience will enrich Christ’s Church: we will all benefit.

The Rev Libby Lane brings with her a wealth of experience: in parish ministry; as a hospital and Further Education Chaplain and in helping candidates for the Church’s ministry and their nurture.

As a wife and mother, she has 
these unique gifts to offer. When 
she returns home as Bishop of Stockport in her home diocese of Chester, she will exercise her episcopal ministry with joy, prayerfulness, and trust in God.

The appointment of women to the ordained ministry is not a matter of justice or of human rights. The Rev Rose Hudson Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, says: “I don’t have the right to be a priest, or a bishop, or an archbishop. Nobody has. We are simply called to serve.” That goes for men, too.

‘Called’ and ‘serve’ are the right terms. God calls us all to serve him: first to serve him as laypeople; then some laypeople will be called to serve as clergy. In God’s economy there are no seniors and juniors. He has no favourites. Some may carry heavier responsibilities than others and they will be equipped for that task. Christians ought not be in competition with each other.

When I wrote to Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently to offer my prayers for his battle with prostate cancer, he replied with these words: “Wonderful that you over there will soon have women bishops. Yippee! I know you have pushed for this for a long time. Yippee again!”

‘Yippee’ doesn’t actually feature in the Church’s liturgy. But you can say it under your breath. So to Archbishop Tutu’s Yippee, I say my ardent ‘Alleluia!’. God’s holy name be praised. Amen.

• Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York who will make history today when he presides over the consecration of Britain’s first female bishop.