Rock the Boat! Research on transparency of gendered positions in the Church of England

A copy of the report is available to download here.

This research was undertaken by Dr Sharon Jagger, York St. John University, and Becky Tyndall, Durham University and was commissioned by campaign organisation Women and the Church (WATCH). The project aimed to explore the experiences of women worshipping in churches which hold conservative positions on gender and investigate how transparent these churches are about their positions.

Some churches in the Church of England remain opposed to women’s ordination and some teach complementarianism, whereby women are perceived to have innate differences to men, meaning they are only equipped for ‘distinct’ roles where they do not have authority over men.

WATCH has raised the issue of transparency of such positions and anecdotally it appears women sometimes find themselves unknowingly in worshipping communities that limit their roles and ministries because of theological beliefs.

Our research aimed to explore how these positions are publicly advertised and the impact the lack of transparency has on women’s flourishing in local churches.

We examined the messaging on church websites and social media presence of churches known to object to women’s ordained ministry and/or have a complementarian view to assess how transparent these positions are. Our findings reveal that the majority of such churches use specialist and obfuscating language that does not plainly state attitudes to women’s ministries.

We also interviewed women who have either discovered their church’s position over a period of time or whose church has shifted position because of a change of leadership, leading to restrictions in women’s ministries. These stories show the significant impact on individual women, and also point out the systemic ways women’s roles, leadership, and authority are undermined in the Church. Each story was unique and nuanced, but together they showed the complex entanglements of identity, power, gender and religion in women’s everyday lives. 

Whilst our conclusions and recommendations are oriented to increasing transparency of churches in their messaging, we do not intend this project to be ameliorative of the current Church structure to preserve the status quo. On the contrary, our research illuminates the harms done by the Church legitimising beliefs and theological positions that exclude women from positions of authority, leadership, and ordination. Our final conclusion is that the Church should recognise these harms and work towards a change in structure that no longer supports the discrimination against women in lay leadership or who are ordained.