Dozens of ordained women from the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church gathered together Oct. 8-10 for the Leading Women conference, an all-women meeting at the Mundelein Seminary in Chicago that sought to encourage women in church leadership.
But they weren’t the only ones on the premises.
As principal school for the formation of priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, Mundelein that week also hosted a large number of young Catholic seminarians—all men. The two groups largely stayed separate, visible to each other only during meals. But for Archbishop Melissa Skelton, one of the main organizers of the Leading Women conference, the juxtaposition of genders drove home for many “the importance of the ministry of ordained women.”
“We were all women at the conference,” Skelton says. “Women organized it, women spoke at it, women participated. There was not a man anywhere to be seen, and it was just a new realization of how important this work is.”
The Leading Women conference began in the United Kingdom in 2010, at a time when there were no female bishops in the Church of England, as a way to prepare women who might be appointed bishops for the role. Later, the conference spread to the United States, inviting ordained Episcopal women to explore what it would be like to seek new leadership positions in the church.
The 2019 gathering marks the first time that Anglican women from Canada have attended Leading Women. A total of 68 women attended the event, including 31 women from Canada and 37 women from the United States. Canadian participants represented dioceses including New Westminster, British Columbia, Yukon, Algoma, Moosonee, Ottawa, Toronto, and Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
Over the course of their three days together, the participants—among them bishops, cathedral deans, executive archdeacons, and parish rectors—heard panel discussions on female church leadership and shared their own experiences in small groups.
“We prayed together, we ate together, we heard each other’s stories,” Skelton says.
“To say this was powerful is an understatement. It was, for some of the women, earth-shaking…. Women accompanying and encouraging other women is a very powerful experience, and it doesn’t often happen in the circles that we have in our church.”
Some ordained women experience a “profound ambivalence” over whether or not they should pursue higher leadership positions, Skelton suggests. They might believe that to do so might seem “too overtly ambitious,” or tell themselves that they are unqualified when they are in fact overqualified.
By contrast, she says, some at the conference told stories about how “the men that they know just don’t think twice…. Women have not always experienced the same kind of support in the church [and so] they very much appreciate the encouraging and challenging support of other women.”
The recent election of Linda Nicholls as the first female primate of the Anglican Church of Canada—following closely Katharine Jefferts Schori, who served as the first female presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church from 2006 to 2015 and was the first woman elected to primacy in the Anglican Communion—did not go unnoticed by those in attendance.
“Because of the timing in Canada and the U.S., being roughly the same time period…we feel like we were on the forefront together of women’s ordination,” Skelton says. “That’s all very encouraging.
Keynote speakers included Bishop Chilton Knudsen, assisting bishop in the Episcopal diocese of Washington, and Canon Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada. Knudsen spoke on trends she saw for the role of women in the church, while Rois discussed the history of the ordination of women in Canada.
Breakout discussions touched on topics from the theology of leadership to building financial confidence, from ministry in rural and remote settings to intersectionality.
Rois calls her experience of the conference “uplifting and inspiring” as she met women from “diverse ages, cultures and faith journeys…all of whom have broken through the stained-glass ceiling that, in the past, was impenetrable.”
“My experience was that all of these women have moved past punching their fists in the air demanding recognition—or allowing a victim mindset to prevent a resolute and forward outlook,” Rois says. “Each of the women I met had a sense of hope and anticipation as they looked to the future.
“What I think many women took away with them was a strong, supportive network of women in Canada and the U.S., women who could be called upon for advice, counsel and support. I also think they returned home with hope and a sense that positions in the church previously not available to them could in fact be possibilities now more than ever.”
Major sponsors included the Anglican Foundation, which donated $15,000, and the Anglican Initiatives Fund in the diocese of New Westminster. Bishops, synod office staff members and priests in the United States also helped sponsor the event.