Women in the House of Bishops

Women bishops

When General Convention began, I promised to write a post about how the House of Bishops differs from the House of Deputies. Stefani Schatz (organizer of Breaking the Episcopal Glass Ceiling) encouraged me to look for the positive aspects of serving as a bishop, things that might lead more women to explore this calling.

I tried. I sat in the gallery of the House of Bishops for almost every open session. I watched interactions and listened to our women bishops when they spoke. I tried to figure out why anyone, male or female, would accept this responsibility. I’m still thinking.

I did discover a few blessings of the office. The House of Bishops is a friendlier place than the House of Deputies. Bishops gather repeatedly and form true community by serving together over many years. This foundation of trust is a gift to the Church because it helps us stay together when shifting winds of culture and fear try to tear us apart. To a person, our bishops are smart, faithful, gifted servants of God. They are a repository of institutional memory. They know the canons and follow them, as well as history, theology, and the Bible. One of the gifts of the office must be the opportunity to share in ministry with this inspiring group of people. In addition, most bishops are smart enough to recognize that the House of Bishops needs to reflect the diversity of the entire church so that our foundation will be stronger, so they do  welcome the presence and gifts of women and people of color.

But beyond that, beyond the fact that our bishops are an interesting group of people and more diversity is needed, I can’t find much else encouraging to say.

The episcopate is a lonely calling for anyone, but women serving in the House of Bishops are truly on their own. The seating chart alone is telling. If Guidebook was correct, only 16 of the 23 tables included any female bishops at all. Three of the 23 included two women, but Katharine Jefferts-Schori (assigned to Table 1 with Catherine Waynick) was usually at the platform so that doesn’t really count. (Barbara Harris and Carolyn Irish were assigned to Table 5, and Marianne Budde and Geralyn Wolf were assigned to Table 19). Thirteen tables included only one women bishop. Seven of 23 tables were men only. (Only 22 tables are listed in Guidebooks, but Bishops-elect Scanlan and Kendrick sat at a 23rd).

On one level, this may not be a big deal. Clergy women are accustomed to serving in a male-dominated profession, so our bishops must be used to this. I’m sure the seating chart varies from meeting to meeting, and it may be best for women bishops to spread out, be visible, and get to know the other bishops in the house. But from the outside looking in, it appeared that women in the House of Bishops were isolated from one another for the entire 10+ days of Convention. Women (like men) tend to be stronger when we are together, so I was sorry these sisters had to sit alone every day. Correction – I’m told the seating charts are for the triennium – not sure if this was the first or last time for this particular configuration.

Because there are so few of them in the House, the conversation was dominated by men.  Mike Kinman’s count is that we currently have a total 19 women out of 275 bishops, but a lot of bishops don’t show up at Convention. 180 were listed on the seating chart – 18 of them women (only 3 are diocesan bishops at the moment). This means women represented 10% of the House of Bishops this time. I took a lot of notes throughout Convention, but in my notes, comments from women are far less than 10% of the conversation (with the exception, of course, of Presiding Bishop Katharine).

This is not a criticism of our women bishops. When they did speak, they had meaningful things to say – often powerful calls to justice and faithfulness – but they did not speak as often as the men. Of course, plenty of male bishops listen more than speak also, and this is a gift many of us need to cultivate. Like most human groups, a few voices dominated the conversation while the rest were silent. But I was surprised by the relative quiet of women bishops at this General Convention.

Women do exercise significant leadership in the House. Bishop Harris led the development of a new social media policy for the bishops. Bishop Bruce served as assistant secretary and was elected secretary at the end. Bishop Gray-Reeves was elected co-vice president with Bishop Wolfe. Bishop Waynick chaired Committee 15 Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. However, since around 10% of the active membership of the House of Bishops is female, it would have been reasonable to expect 2 of 22 committees to have a female chair, but I believe Committee 15 was the only one.

All of this is simply reiterates what we already know. Nearly forty years after the ordination of women to the priesthood, twenty-six years after the consecration of Barbara Harris, we still do not have leadership which reflects the diversity of the world around us, much less the profile of our church where women make up the majority of membership and leadership.

I didn’t talk with any of our women bishops at this convention about how they have been received in their dioceses, but I remember what Bishop Waynick faced in Indianapolis when I served there. Most of our churches welcomed her leadership but a few did not. It was probably worse early in her ministry there, when there were even fewer women in the House of Bishops. I had always assumed that the House of Bishops served as a community of support for our bishops, like a good clericus is supposed to provide. When she faced criticism or difficulty at home, I assumed that the House of Bishops was her refuge. However, after watching them at work for a few weeks, I’m not sure the House of Bishops is an entirely supportive place for anyone. I suspect our bishops, especially women bishops, still have to be a bit on guard, even today. They have to find support elsewhere.

And then there are the demands of the job. At one point during Convention, I spoke with the adult child of one of our bishops. I mentioned this movement to encourage more women to explore a calling to the episcopate. I said that the schedule and demands on family were challenges that kept many women from applying. “Is it really that bad?” I asked. “What can you tell us to encourage more women to explore this?” “Actually,” the person said, “It really is that bad. Bishops are away from home every weekend – usually meeting with a vestry on Saturday night and with the church on Sunday. The House of Bishops almost always meets during Spring Break, which means no vacation time with family. There are a lot of meetings away from the diocese as well. They are always in the public eye. It’s a really tough job.”

It is a really tough job, for men as well as for women. I am even more convinced that serving as a bishop is not something anyone should aspire to for the sake of  “career advancement.” Though it represents the height of leadership in our church, it is not a step up in terms of quality of life, and sometimes not in salary either. It does not offer the rewards that make the demands of pastoral ministry so worthwhile – relationships with the people you baptize, moments of transforming insight, the joy of seeing a vestry or leadership group discover God calling them to do something great, really knowing the people who hear you preach, being able to pray by name for each person who receives communion from your hand. Those who become bishops lose all of that.

But some people are called to this work, thanks be to God. And we trust that God has poured out the gifts of the Spirit on all flesh, both sons and daughters, so that includes women. And I imagine that for those who are called to this office, the challenges and sacrifices are worth it for the sake of gospel.

So do encourage women to apply for the many positions coming open in the next few years. And if you are a woman who feels so called, brush up on the canons, practice speaking truth where it may not be so well received, learn to set boundaries and preserve time for rest and growth amid the demands of ministry, figure out why the gospel matters and how you want the Church to share it, get comfortable with being alone, and grow VERY strong spiritually because you’re gonna need that power.

Here’s hoping that women represent 15% of the House of Bishops in 2018.

“Scarf buckle” by Mauro Cateb – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scarf_buckle.JPG#/media/File:Scarf_buckle.JPG

I have no idea who took this lovely photo of our current women bishops. I saw it on many Facebook pages. Happy to give credit if someone will advise.


  1. I also watched the HoB when I could this convention and in 2012. You’ve captured the character well. They are far more collegial having spent more time together and with less turnover from year to year. This time I observed the last hour of debate before the vote on the marriage canon. What I saw was a different slice of grace. Those who were in favor for the most part, including the women, sat quietly. Those brother bishops who were against, spoke with passion. I read the women as letting those who are in the minority have their voice one more time for they knew what it’s like to be in the minority. I could be wrong. I was impressed with the quietness of the majority.


  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful reflection. You have described what change looks like as it evolves…takes time to reach that “tipping point”. Even when you add up the retired, suffragans, and the very few diocesan women bishops, we are only a taste of what is to come. Perhaps we need to consider how we Women clergy need to show more support for them…?


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