Church of England

Canon Rosie Harper on the "good girl guides" who have been consecrated bishop


“We haven’t had anyone from left field,” said the left-field Canon Rosie Harper to the left-field BBC, as two wonderful, gifted women were consecrated bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Canterbury Cathedral. “It would be unkind to say they’ll all be good girl guides – that would be betraying it,” she clarified, while subtly betraying these women by sowing the very innuendo of good-girl-guidiness. “But there is a feeling of that,” she needled. “Mostly, they’re all married to clergy and the temptation to play the boys’ game in order to survive will be very great until there’s a much larger number of people.”

So these bishops, says Rosie Harper, are not “good girl guides”, but “there is a feeling of that”. Feelings are real, if they aren’t always truth. Presumably this feeling emanates from the hearts of one or two left-field canons, priests and/or chaplains, and one or two like-minded laity.

It is unfortunate that Canon Harper decided to sound a sour F# minor chord while the rest of the Church was rejoicing and praising God with a choral symphony in D major. There is a time for everything, and a joyous moment of episcopal consecration is not a time for a vicar to screech, “Look at me!”

The left-field Canon Rosie Harper is chaplain to the left-field Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev’d Dr Alan Wilson, who is doubtless encouraging (if not lobbying for) his left-field chaplain to succeed him when he retires (an occasion which must be imminent), to ensure a left-field succession in Buckingham, since Stockport, Hull, Gloucester, Crediton, Taunton and Aston have all manifestly (according to Canon Harper) gone to women from right field, who are “mostly married to clergy”.

Is it being married to clergy which makes them right field? Presumably they don’t all vote for David Cameron and aren’t too enthralled by Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Gove, so she can’t mean ‘right’ in a party political sense. Isn’t it sufficient that one of the bishops was a speech therapist and the other a nurse in the NHS? Might that make them left field? Doesn’t it at least adequately establish a foundation of ministry based in real life and human strife?

In fact, only three of these bishops are married to clergy.* That’s three out of six, which is half, or 50%, which isn’t “mostly”; it’s equally, which surely must be a virtuous theology for Canon Rosie Harper, whose whole theo-political mission is to preach equality wherever it may be sought/found/inculcated/imposed – even for the elderly, sick or disabled who may want expedited equality with the dead.

But apparently these women bishops are not only right field; they are tarrying in their gender vocation to be different. According to Rosie Harper, women bishops “must find a new way of being a bishop and not merely become a female version“. This is an immutable creed for Canon Harper because male bishops “function like little boys lost, having to posture that they know what they are doing. Yet often they never get round to doing what they know in their hearts is the right thing..  (They) find it impossible to escape the gentlemen’s club culture until they retire”.


Is that belief a prerequisite for left-field episcopology? Do women not “posture”? Is it only men who give the impression of knowing what they’re doing while not having a clue? Is it only men who are prone to a “club culture”? Isn’t this all rather.. well, unpleasantly sexist? Can you imagine a male vicar saying that women bishops function like lost little girls, paying more attention to their lipstick than the content of their sermons; posturing and preening in the Ladies’ while delving into their handbags for divine inspiration?

Rosie Harper wants the new Bishop of Oxford to be a woman, hopefully not just because she has already prepared her CV and it is a superior diocesan position compared to the suffragan bishopric of Buckingham. Intriguingly, the CNC is having problems discerning the right candidate.

Canon Harper said: “We’ve got to look to the future… obviously, you look for the best person for the job but having made the decision to have women bishops, the Church has to enact it not just leave it on the back burner. The face of the Church of England… is exclusively male and that needs to change very quickly.”

May not the best person for the job be a “good girl guide”? You know, someone who takes an oath of canonical obedience and sticks to it? Someone who understands the meaning of submission to authority and grasps the imperative of an episcopal polity which is best served by unity. Or is that to ‘clubby’?

The Church of England isn’t “exclusively male”, as it happens. In fact, according to a Tearfund survey of 2007, Churchgoing in the UK, women constitute 65% and men 35% of regular attendees. True, that’s across all denominations, but the ratio of women to men is not likely to be in different in the CofE. According to the Telegraph, more women flock to the Church: “..the lack of men in the Church has been attributed to the rise of women in its public roles. The increasing ‘feminisation’, particularly of the Church of England since the first women were ordained as priests in 1994, is said to be off-putting for men.”

Whether or not ‘feminsation’ has any basis in reliable research is moot, but there is a feeling of that:

Not many have been brave enough to say publicly what this supposed ‘feminisation’ consists of. A few though have pointed to what they perceive as the increasingly emotional interpretation of Church practise in the hands of women – their sense that the Christian life has become a bit too touchy-feely – and that men are being repelled by the lack of engagement with masculine themes. I have even heard it argued that women have a sentimentalised concept of God who is increasingly described as ‘loving’ rather than ‘just’, ‘tender’ rather than ‘righteous,’ not to mention the fact that He occasionally becomes a She.

..For others the ‘feminisation’ of the Church is simply a question of personnel – the sheer number of women entering the priesthood (with female ordinands now outnumbering male) is rendering the institution a girls club that men cannot relate to.

These are complex and nuanced matters of ecclesiology and feminist theology. But perhaps by “face of the Church of England” Rosie Harper refers to its leaders, which are obviously predominantly male because.. well, until recently, the Church followed Scripture and tradition and perpetuated the notions and oppressions of patriarchy. Since there are now more female ordinands than male, perhaps by ‘face’ she alludes more specifically to the ‘head’, ie the Episcopate.

Yet hasn’t the “exclusively male” face of the Church of England been complemented by right-field women bishops? Or isn’t that sufficiently complementary? Must this exclusively right-field female episcopacy of “good girl guides” (or the feeling thereof) now be complemented by left-field women? And how, precisely, is that being defined?

Is it ‘left field’ to demur from Scripture, tradition and episcopal authority? For example, the official position of the Church of England vis-à-vis ‘Assisted Suicide‘ is unequivocal:

The Church of England cannot support Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill.. Patient safety, protection of the vulnerable and respect for the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship are central to the Church of England’s concerns about any proposal to change the law. Our position on the current Bill before parliament is also consistent with the approach taken by the Archbishops’ Council, House of Bishops and with successive resolutions of the General Synod.

Is is ‘left field’ to ride roughshod over this and tell members of the House of Lords in Parliament that it is their moral and Christian duty to support the Bill? In her official capacity as a minister of the Church and chaplain to a bishop, Rosie Harper told the assembles peers:

Let me clarify the bottom line. This legislation does not require anyone to do anything they do not believe in, in their own lives, but if you vote against it, you personally are requiring other people to suffer extreme agony on behalf of your own conscience. That is neither moral or Christian.

If this censorious and judgmental spirit is left field, perhaps the Lord prefers to bless the “good girl guides” with greater responsibility and spiritual authority because they have been faithful in the small things and have honoured their oaths of allegiance. Authority in the Church community requires discipline, wisdom and discernment, because when decisions are taken of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’, those who minister are acting corporately as God’s agents in the world. Where two or three male bishops are gathered, Jesus is right there in their club, manifesting a superabundance of divine mercy. Where five or six female bishops are gathered, Jesus is among them, too – even in the right field; even if they’re married to clergy.

*Correction: it transpires that five of these bishops are married to clergy, which is 83%, which is indeed “most” by a good margin. Sloppy, hasty research. No excuse. Apologies to Canon Harper. The only bishop not to have a vicar-husband is the Rt Rev’d Sarah Mullally DBE, who is probably not ‘left field’ because she is a dame.