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Women bishops – refreshing the executive board of the Church of England

I always think of Dr Carrie Pemberton Ford when the subject of women bishops is raised. I worked with her once to promote CHASTE – Churches Alert Against Sex Trafficking across Europe. Feeling disappointed after the latest blow for women bishops in the Church of England, I asked Carrie to share her thoughts about this

Carrie, a feisty director of the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking, expressed her disappointment too, hoping it would not be the moment that the Church of England voted for its own dissolution, and suggesting that it should modernise by perhaps adopting some of the successful business ethics applied by Virgin and Google.

This is what Carrie says:

The Church has failed to adjust to a world which has been rapidly changing around it – and the required internal reordering and thinking required to generate a place where there would be  ‘magic in working’ within the church’s core business.  The numbers of women priests have risen year on year.

Although some of the more unpleasant Neanderthal behaviours towards them seem to  have diminished,  as a spiritual director and executive coach to some who work as ordained ministers, some at senior Bishop’s staff level,  I continue to hear of behaviours which would be inconceivable in other areas of public life.  Over the last two decades the pressure to open the equivalent of the board room door across the organisation has become apparent to everybody.  Somehow ‘theological arguments’ based on what many believe to be simply the whitewash of prejudice and fear, have kept the doors of equality and the streams of renewal for the organisation firmly closed.

One of the key selling points into businesses of diversity, inclusion and a respect and serious protection of the equalities, is that it releases talent right across the organisations which set out with commitment on this road.  A coherent and committed inclusion policy enables companies to attract, retain and deploy the best talent in their business and make ‘the magic of working’ there produce tangible benefits for all concerned.

For the business there are the best people they could possibly recruit present, reflecting the diversity of their customer base and bringing an energy and vibrancy to the work place culture as people experience the joy of working in an environment of acceptance, openness and safety.

Officially the Church of England’s synod was supposed to take a breather of three years from looking at the issue of women’s ordination to the episcopacy if the vote failed as it did this Tuesday evening.

However, the uproar being experienced across all forms of media, and participation of politicians expressing disturbance at the General Synod’s stance, show that this seems unlikely.  With moves afoot to  table questions on the on-going validity of an upper house representation from 26 exclusively male bishops from at least one unimpressed Labour MP, the impetus to address the challenge of the Church of England and its Synod being in the parting words of Archbishop Rowan ‘held hostage by a minority’ are considerable.

This is the challenge for the Rt Revd Justin Welby to pick up as he moves down from his palace in Durham to take up his post as the next Archbishop of Canterbury in December.  He has a Christian mantra on hand to inspire his agenda in the words of St Paul who called for the early church to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2).

This “renewal” can be taken to mean the recovery of something lost; the improvement of what is already present; or a complete exchange of the past and present for a radically new future.  Inspiring, clear sighted and resilient leadership are certainly called for in taking the Church of England back from the brink and into a transformed future.  There needs to be radical changes in behaviour, and some of the reports of bullying and harassment which filter out from time to time with an unpleasantly misogynistic tone, need to be investigated, rooted out and guidance clearly put in place to build respect, and regain trust.

There are many well-wishers still in the UK and beyond who are waiting to see the Church of England get back on track to be a place where the rich diversity of humanity are welcome, and where all, straight or gay, male or female, find hospitality, a welcome, a chance to test their vocations, a place to work, to flourish and to express with vitality their experience of God and love of neighbour.  The negative brand which the Church of England has inherited in its Tudor birth right, referenced by a disconsolate tweeter on Tuesday evening, need not be the last word.

But there is a great deal of committed transformation and robust attention to promoting equality across multiple diversities of which gender is but one of nine,  to be undertaken over the next eighteen months.

Only a whole system change will ensure that what occurred on Tuesday 20th November 2012 is not remembered as the night which the Church of England voted for its own dissolution.   Entering into the season of miracles, the challenge is great, but for one who has witnessed what opening up an organisation to its neglected talent through a positive embrace of inclusion, is not impossible.  Time it might appear  then for a Virgin rebirth.

In the ‘morning after papers’ following the vote, there were a range of voices summoned to give an initial analysis of what the Archbishop had called ‘the unintelligible’ outcome of the night before.  The Principal of the favoured training college for likely Bishops in the Church of England, Ripon College Cuddesdon  in the folds of the Chiltern hills outside Oxford, took up his pen. The problem, in a nutshell, has been the lack of inspiring leadership.    ‘As a body’, Dr Martyn Percy reflected in an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph,  ‘we seem to have been quite slow in learning that diversity, disagreement and differences cannot simply be managed into consensus. The political, synodical or managerial solutions that have been proffered so far have singularly failed to inspire and galvanise most of the debaters.  And the public, understandably, has switched off in droves.  What is needed is better and inspiring theological that will lift the debate into a different dimension.  We need outstanding theological leadership, and not a mere suite of managed compromises’.

Dr Percy’s analysis has two important grains of truth which those working in diversity, inclusion and transformational change within organisations will quickly recognise.  For whole organisation change, there needs to be a robust seizure of a vision for where an organisation might be moved to and what that could look like.  It needs to be inhabited, rejoiced in, felt and celebrated.

Secondly there needs to be a compelling reason for change.  What purpose will be achieved by what is always a somewhat tricky business.  What are the benefits of the pain of intervention?  Sometimes it seems so much easier to breathe slower, take in less oxygen and die.  It is at this point that an outside crash team is called for.

In the area of organisational change it has become essential for all global businesses to attend to the presence of diversity in the global and local market place.  This affects both the ‘customer base’  and the hiring market.  The ‘global’  market place, having to pay attention to the local needs of the business as well as the global arena which makes up the full environment of the business’s world, is  one where the ‘consumers’ are male and female, straight and gay, representative of all ethnicities and nationalities, abilities and disabilities, and with a depth of field in age spread which has been hitherto unparalleled.  Full inclusion and a deep understanding of how to work creatively in one’s organisation with diversity has become a critical game changer in helping make  businesses lean, diverse and effective in a global context of increased competition and tighter budgets.

The Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson has emerged as one of the passionate champions of the benefits of attending to inclusion and diversity.  Whether it be in hiring policies, getting women through the marzipan and into the royal icing. Mixing it up with straight and gay representation, full access to those with disabilities, flexible working to retain those with caring responsibilities outside of work, from the board right out to front line delivery.

Virgin has been pioneering innovative responses to the rapidly changing context in which business is done. And done so with an effective distributed management team responding to a central inspiring vision.   Another high flying firm which has transformed the global internet market place is Google.  In a recent online advert for a senior executive, the organisation reveals a narrative of energy, diversity, vision and openness to change in a few compelling lines:

‘You are focused on cultivating outstanding candidates for Google’s long-term hiring needs, and you are the glue that ties together a cross-functional and international group of staffing teams. You are both scrappy and resourceful, creative and driven — and excited to share the magic of working at Google’.

Scrappy and resourceful, creative and driven, excited to share the magic of working for this team: as a theologian my mind is immediately drawn back to the first two generations of Christianity where this would have doubtless been the case. The ‘magic’, after all, sits well with an organisation based on some extraordinary perceptions of reality – virgin births, resurrection from the dead and the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers.  And yet today, ‘sharing the magic’ of working with the church is hardly a term which can be ascribed to the Church of England in these first days after the disappointment of the failed vote.

In blog, newspaper commentary, press statements and personal phone calls, what is communicated is an organisation worn down by tired compromises in endless search of some ‘middle way’ in order to retain a mythic unity  which has worn down priests and people within and commentators watching the Church of England over the last 20 years.

*Revd Dr Carrie Pemberton Ford is a senior partner in the diversity and equalities consultancy Ibix Insight. Ordained into the Church of England in 1994 Carrie has worked in Africa, India, Belgium and across the UK, as a Priest, theologian, development specialist and lecturer. A Research Fellow of the University of the Free State in the Republic of South Africa, Executive Coach and mentor, Carrie is currently developing a tool kit for business leaders to use in their quest to build open representation of women and LGBT employees within their companies.

Carrie is a director of the Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking,  a pioneering on line network of academics and practitioners addressing the challenge of complexity in the abuse of Human Rights entailed in trafficking in persons across the world.  She has published numerous articles, monographs and contributed to a number of different edited volumes on issues of Gender equality, Violence against Women, Victim recovery and restitution, Bullying and harassment, and managing diversity in the midst of organisational resistance. Carrie can be contacted at (carrie@fordwords.com) and she also writes a personal blog on equality issues.



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