Church Women

There has been much well-deserved acclaim about the elevation of a woman to the episcopate of the Church of England, and I cannot help but reflect on the books by Anthony Trollope whose interest in the Diocese of Barchester (fictitious but likely based on a real one) centered around the bishop’s wife, the redoubtable Mrs. Proudie. She, assisted by the bishop’s chaplain, often referred to as the ‘bestial Mr. Slope’, managed the See of Barchester, and her milquetoast of a husband seemed incapable or uninterested enough to curb her machinations among the clergy and people of the cathedral close. She provides much of the conflict for Trollope’s tale, and she is a woman who gains the reader’s derision until at last, betrayed by Mr. Slope who finds more fertile fields to plough, her reign of ecclesiastical terror comes to an end. It’s a romp and it’s fun to read. If you don’t want to bother with the novel itself, PBS has made a film called “Barchester Chronicles” that portrays fairly well what Trollope had in mind.

Geraldine McEwan and Alan Rickman
as Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope in the TV
adaptation of Barchester Towers

He published Barchester Towers in 1857 when the very idea of a woman joining the clergy of the Anglican Church was unthinkable. How proud I think he would be that a woman has become a bishop in the C of E, not through political appointment, but through her own merits and the recognition of her attributes by her peers. And how proud I am that we in the American church have led the way for many years now for women to gain their rightful place among the House of Bishops.

We have led several such crusades and presented them as examples of Christian charity to our Anglican cousins. The American church showed the Communion that divorced people could indeed be welcomed into their congregations, that women were called to the priesthood, and that gay and lesbian people also enjoy the love of God promised to all people, and are, as the Eucharistic Prayer says, ‘worthy to stand’ before God in the free knowledge that all are one in Christ.

The issues in Trollope’s novels go deeper than the desire for power exhibited by Mrs. Proudie, and if you want to explore the differences within the church back then between “high church” and “evangelicalism” and note where we are some 150 years later, his books might be just what you’re looking for. What might strike you is how far we’ve come as a church in the furthering of God’s kingdom, and shining brightly in the dawn of its new age is the consecration of the Church of England’s first woman bishop, Bishop Libby Lane.

Robert Heylmun

Congratulations to Bishop Libby Lane!  (source)

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