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Colleen DulleMarch 04, 2024
Pope Francis meets with the bishops of Italy's Emilia Romagna region at the Vatican, Feb. 29, 2024 (CNS photo/Vatican Media) / Anglican Bishop Jo Bailey Wells of Dorking at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions at the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Sept. 14, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Anglican Bishop Jo Bailey Wells spoke about her own experience as an ordained woman and the Church of England’s journey to ordaining women at a meeting of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisors on Feb. 5. She was one of two women to present at the meeting, the second in a series of encounters with women theologians that Sister Linda Pocher, F.M.A., is arranging for the pope’s cabinet to look more deeply at the role of women in the church between the 2023 and 2024 sessions of the Synod on Synodality.

Bishop Wells was ordained a priest in 1995, a year after the Church of England opened the priesthood to women. She taught at Cambridge University and Duke Divinity School, before being invited by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to be his chaplain, a role that had never before been held by a woman. She is currently the Bishop for Episcopal Ministry, a wide-ranging role assisting other Anglican bishops, at London’s Anglican Communion Office.

The bishop joined America associate editor Colleen Dulle on the “Inside the Vatican” podcast to discuss her experience addressing Pope Francis and his closest advisors. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity; listen to a full version in the podcast player below.

What did you say to [Pope Francis and the cardinal advisors]? What was the message you delivered?

I would say it fell into two categories. The first was to speak of the process from my own personal perspective, which is a journey of being deacon priest, bishop…[giving] a sense of the character of that ministry alongside men. Second, [I spoke of] the journey of the [Anglican] church, starting in the Victorian period when the church developed the Order of Deaconess, which was the first formal role in ministry given to women, which interestingly began through pressure from religious sisters who were already serving the church in education, in social work, in counseling and then in particular during the Second World War.

In 1944, in exceptional circumstances in Macau, China, a woman was leading a congregation as a lay minister, where [there was a] desperate shortage of priests. The priest could no longer visit once [he was] held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The local bishop in Hong Kong invited [this lay minister] over, her name is Lee Tim Oi, and said, “I see no reason not to ordain you in order to continue to sustain this flourishing church.” I don’t think anybody knew about it until after the war.

Sometimes the exception can open doors; it helps open the imagination.

When controversy began over that ordination, she, of her own volition, stepped back and said, “I will function in my lay capacity again now that there are male clergy to take that place.” She sustained and was highly respected for her ministry in China during the Mao persecutions that followed for the next 30-odd years, and ended up immigrating to Canada, I think in the early ’80s, where by this time in the Anglican Church of Canada, women were ordained deacons, priests, possibly even bishops. They recognized her ordination from way back, and she was able to function in holy orders again in her later years of life. So, [it’s] rather a beautiful story. Sometimes the exception can open doors; it helps open the imagination; it opens possibilities. She’s a significant figure for me.

Do you get the sense that they invited you to speak about women’s ordination because they’re thinking about whether or how this might play out in the Catholic Church?

Their reasoning for inviting me was totally upfront on that one. My understanding is that it’s a matter of record that the Synod on Synodality from last October committed to exploring the roles of women in the church and that some form of diaconate is not impossible. At least, it is being discussed in some quarters. I spoke to them about the decision-making journey in the church, which I would say is continuing. It’s a process of open reception. At [this] point, we have 42 provinces in the Anglican Communion that have autonomy for decision-making on matters like this: autonomy but interdependence.

What was it like for you to be with Pope Francis in the room?

A joy. I have so much respect for the man. Most of that is based on the words he writes and publishes or media interviews. I’ve met him a couple of times before but [never] for any personal conversation at all, just for a handshake. I don’t suppose for a moment he recognized me from either of the two previous occasions or would recognize me again; he meets countless people all the time, but the warmth of his welcome was really significant.

Bishop Jo Bailey Wells, Sister Giuliva Di Beradino, Pope Francis and Sister Linda Pocher at the Vatican on Feb. 5 (Photo provided by
Bishop Jo Bailey Wells, Sister Giuliva Di Beradino, Pope Francis and Sister Linda Pocher at the Vatican on Feb. 5 (Photo provided by Bishop Bailey Wells)

In the beginning, the cardinals went around the table introducing themselves, and they skipped him because he’d already welcomed us. And actually, he stopped them because he was miffed, as if to say, “I’m one of this gathering,” almost as an equal. So we wound back to him.

At the end [of the presentation], he hardly engaged; he encouraged the cardinals to engage in discussion. At the very end, he sort of summed [it] up, and that was in Italian. I confess, I think my translator was so taken up with what he was saying, that he forgot to translate it back the other way for me into English! So I [only] caught some of it. But I know he was talking about what builds up the church and talking about a generous vision of the church, which I’m guessing was hinting at crossing the ecumenical lines like had happened that morning.

Your meeting came just after the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which paired up and then commissioned one Catholic bishop and one Anglican bishop each from the same place to do projects together. Their approach is: What we can do together, we should do together. What do you think are some of the things that Catholics and Anglicans can do together right now?

The biggest thing we can ever do is pray because the church does not belong to us. It reminds us when we pray that everything is about God, and perhaps it helps us to let go a little bit. The more we let go, the better we can serve together.

For years now, I have prayed daily for the unity of Christians. That’s something I learned from Chemin Neuf, a Catholic religious community with an ecumenical vocation. Their prayer is a prayer that is on my heart and my tongue: I learned it from them, prayed it with them and continue to pray it. It was delightful that [the meeting with the C9] followed the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And although we were not talking about unity, what we were doing clearly speaks to a level of trust and understanding and shared enterprise that is common to that journey.

In terms of practical ventures in our communities, we are so often doing such similar things. It makes all the sense in the world to join together for some of those practical projects where we are fulfilling Christ’s mission in terms of witness. That might be in terms of proclaiming the Gospel, but it’s often about Gospel deeds. It might be running a local food bank together, some environmental campaign together, or attending to the wounded in Gaza together.

At Lambeth Palace, when I served under Bishop Justin Welby, he started the Community of Saint Anselm for young people aged 20 to 35, which is international and ecumenical. You get these young Christians coming together from all around the world—Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, you name it—and they live a one-year monastic experience of sorts, committing to praying together, learning together, serving the poor together. Nobody came out of that experience without a bigger sense of God’s church, whatever the label of their church.

That was the starting point, I suppose, for me entering the Council of Cardinals, where I have huge respect for them, but I’m not in awe. I assume I come around the table as an equal, even if they’re a little bit uncomfortable because they don’t [have] female priests and bishops, but I recognize the privilege. I just long for more of that [collaboration].

Did you see your being invited to this meeting of the Council of Cardinals as a step in the ecumenical process?

Clearly, there was an assumption that it would be useful to hear the story of women in ministry from a different perspective, which presumes some commonality of our churches, our journey, even if we go about it differently. So I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were saying, “Please teach us,” but mutual listening is surely about functioning as brothers and sisters together.

It didn’t feel terribly radical inside the room. It only has felt radical in terms of some of the reactions of some of the press in the aftermath.

What has the range of reactions been?

The first requests that came in were all from Catholic channels of one sort or another [in] many different countries, eager to hear more [and coming] from an enthusiastic perspective. It’s only from scanning the press that I haven’t spoken to that I can see what the conservative side of the table is saying, too—where, actually, I was never asked to give any information, and there is plenty of false information that circulated.

[There was] clearly some discomfort. And I understand that. One of the things I said in my presentation was, although I’m clearly on one side of the table in terms of the decision for the ordination of women in the Church of England, I have always sought to work with those who disagree as well as with those who agree because I think there is room to differ on this issue. There is room to differ with integrity, whether on the basis of history and tradition and understanding of ordination and priesthood or from the biblical point of view when we mine our Scriptures and read them afresh. I came to a new conviction [reading them], but I understand others may not.

I imagine that’s a challenging position for you to be in because if someone disagrees with you about women’s ordination, they disagree about your very vocation. Does that get difficult?

I won’t say it’s never difficult. I try to remember the disagreement is not about me personally. The church isn’t about my ordination, for goodness’ sake. My role is to serve the church, and I will serve it, where I’m invited; it’s harder to serve it where you are not invited, but I am committed to it, come what may.

You know, even as a bishop, there were one or two churches in my diocese that did not welcome the ministry of ordained women for one reason or another, and I sought to function there in whatever capacity they were comfortable with. In one of the churches, they weren’t very comfortable with a woman teaching from the pulpit, so I said, “Let me lead an adult education hour beforehand.” I just think, seize the opportunities, go where the doors are open, see where the Spirit leads and offer everything I can to God.

I want to ask you a question that my colleague Kerry Weber asked Pope Francis in our magazine’s interview with him in 2022. She asked him what he would say to Catholic women who feel a call to the priesthood, but face this barrier to being ordained. I wonder what you would say to women in that situation.

To those particular women in that situation, I would pray and encourage them to persevere but to do so with patience.

 

In other words, I think we work for a cause that is much bigger than any of us. It may be we are working for a cause where we won’t see the particular fruition of our cause. But the church is 2,000 years old, and it’s possibly still young! Perhaps we’re still in the era of the early church in God’s great timing. Each one of us is a link in a chain.

I believe women will eventually be ordained across all our churches. Now, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I’ve seen phenomenal change over my adult lifetime in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. I happen to have been around during that 30-year period when everything has changed and have traveled that journey. One day, one of your Catholic sisters will be in that same place. And in the meantime, we work, we pray, we participate in the church to build such an empowered lay ministry that it becomes a no-brainer. That it becomes, “Why wouldn’t you go ahead and do this?” I do think the theological arguments against [ordaining women] have had validity in the past, but I think they can be re-narrated without rejecting the tradition but actually to be faithful to the tradition in a new era.

I imagine one day it will happen, and in the meantime, I see women in your church serving God faithfully. And, goodness me, I take my hat off and I give thanks to them. When I was in Rome for this meeting of the Council of Cardinals, I stayed with the Salesian sisters at the Pontifical Auxilium. There I found 40 or 50 young-ish sisters from all over the world with substantial degrees in theology and education and psychology teaching at a high level. So impressive. I don’t think they are paid well; I don’t think they are acknowledged well for what they are doing. But I said to them, if I had been born and raised in Rome, I might be where you are. And if they had been born and raised in England, they might be where I am. So, let’s just work together, pray together, long together for God’s kingdom, not just for the cause of women, but for God’s kingdom, which is bigger than any of us.

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