Today the second Bishop who happens to be a woman has been appointed to the role of Bishop of Hull. Here we examine the facts that suggest that if a gender balance on the house of bishops is desirable this is either going to require a massive recruitment drive for young female ordinands (at least women under 40) or continuing ‘positive discrimination’ for decades to come… unless there’s a further alternative? 

While the overall gender balance of candidates selected for training towards ordination since 2001 has remained constant at 46-49% female, the percentage of candidates selected under 30 who were women has also been much lower. This has varied between 16-27% and in the past three years has settled at 22% (2011,2012,2013). In hard figures this represents a five-year figure of just 105 out of a total 465 candidates selected under 30 years of age were women[1] A similar, but less extreme, disparity is seen in candidates aged 31-40, where just 34% (191 out of 569 candidates) have been women.

Given that the Church seems to be recognising God’s call on men and women in roughly equal measure it is an anomaly that many of these female vocations have been discerned and ordained much later. Additionally with the recent focus on senior appointments coming out of the Green Report (2014) and the Consecration and Ordination of Women Measure (2014) it remains to be seen what bearing these statistics might have on those appointments. There have been 738 men ordained under the age of 40 in the past five years compared with 296 women.

It could be argued that this is likely to have an effect on the number of eligible candidates for senior positions in the church. Although some clergy have been consecrated relatively quickly after ordination e.g. Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield Bishop of Swindon, ordained age 38, consecrated aged 50, the current Archbishop is not unusual in gathering 19 years of ordained experience prior to consecration to the Bishopric at Durham – aged 36-55). As a comparison Rowan Williams was ordained aged 27 and consecrated aged 42. Libby Lane as first woman to be consecrated was chosen from the 1993 intake of women deacons, and thus had 22 years prior ordained experience to consecration (age 27-49), although she may well have been considered earlier if the law had permitted it. Culture may well be changing with regards to perceived benefits of previous corporate/secular experience vs. longevity of service, but for anyone to be consecrated before the age of 55 and to have accumulated more than (what seems to be a convention of) 12-20 years of prior ordained experience, they will almost all have needed to have been selected for training whilst in their 20s/30s.

 Although we may be yet to see the Libby Lane and Ali White ripple effect, the projected future is not getting more balanced. The current recruitment drive aimed at young candidates has been statistically successful. (Between the years 2010/2011 and 2013/2014 the percentage of younger candidates has increased year on from 18% to 24%), but in that same timeframe the number of female candidates under 30 has remaining at just 22%.

If we posited that an equal proportion of the male and female candidates who had sufficient ordained experience to be consecrated would be eligible candidates then this data would suggest that, ceteris paribus, the proportion of new Bishops in 15-20 years time would reflect the gender disparity reflected in those currently selected for ordination at an early age. It may even be exacerbated if continuing factors like propensity to take part-time / sector appointments were included and assuming that these proved more attractive to female priests than male.

Unless the gender imbalance at this early stage can be altered this only changes if:

1) a deliberate form of ‘positive discrimination’ was employed to try and achieve more gender balance,

2) the female candidates are on average better than the men

3) older female candidates were fast tracked into Bishop roles –  building on their experiences in their first careers – or indeed their parenting. How could we be better at valuing these vital pre-ordination roles (or even post-ordination ‘detours’)?

In a later post I’ll explore the reasons why women tend to offer themselves for ministry much later than men… love to hear your views if you have any 🙂


[1] See appendix ‘Statistics by Gender 2013’