The Church of England being what it is, it was pretty well inevitable that the new Bishop of London should be a woman and as it happens the woman in question is Sarah Mullally, 55, at present suffragan bishop of Exeter. I spoke to her this morning before Downing Street made the announcement – wouldn’t you just love to know if the PM added her mite? – and the bishop designate gave every impression of being a nice and decent person, and a committed, almost certainly evangelical, Christian. Very much in the mould then of another evangelical, the Archbishop of Canterbury. She’s also a former Chief Nursing Officer who worked in the Department of Health for five years and was educated in a comprehensive (the last, a very good thing). So, a far cry then from Richard Chartres, her bearded predecessor, who is both theologically learned and with a profound knowledge of Orthodox Christianity. I don’t think Prince Charles is going to be best friends with Sarah in quite the same way, somehow.
Very prudently, she refused to take sides on the fraught question of whether homosexual couples can marry in Church; she is, as it happens involved in the deliberations that the CofE is undertaking on the matter. As she said: ‘I am clear about teaching of the church…but I also want to reflect an inclusive response to this issue. I’m chairing one of the committees which is reflecting on our teaching and tradition on this issue, the aspect of it dealing with social and biological sciences. I can’t give a sense where this reflection is going to go, but it’s important to stress that everybody is loved by God.’ I got a strong sense from this cautiously worded response that she would be taking the discussion in the direction of liberalising gay marriage. Let’s see.
As for the issue of her gender, she, reasonably enough, sees it as part of what she is. But it may have unintended consequences for the CofE. Right now, some 80 per cent of the Swedish clergy is female. Nice job plus status, and, in Protestant churches, you get your choice of parish. But the effect of ordaining women has been to feminise the church, which makes it less appealing to men. By dint of making the institution more egalitarian it becomes the kind of environment to which men aren’t attracted. Inclusion becomes exclusion. And I can see the same thing happening to the CofE, which has treated clergy opposed to the ordination of women quite ruthlessly. The one kind of person who wouldn’t have had a chance of getting to be Bishop of London is a male cleric who doesn’t support women bishops.
PS The bishop designate’s husband, Eamonn, is not just Irish, but formerly Catholic, but he’s now a member of the Anglican church. Once this would have been seen as apostasy and Catholics would have taken a very dim view; but it will give him something to discuss with Catholic bishops when his wife engages in ecumenical outreach.