The Church of England ended at a stroke the male domination of its hierarchy as the General Synod voted on Monday to allow women to be ordained as bishops for the first time.
Applause in the public gallery at the meeting in York greeted theoverwhelming vote in favour of the measure. With a two-to-one vote for the move needed, 152 lay members of the synod were in favour and 45 against. Majorities among bishops and clergy were even greater.
The historic decision came amid threats of parliamentary intervention, and with the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, having prepared contingency plans to dissolve the synod and call fresh elections if the vote had gone the other way. Welby said after the debate that he was “absolutely delighted by the result; grateful to God and to answered prayers”, and that he expected the appointment of a female bishop “to happen as rapidly as possible”.
A crisis was averted by a change of mind, and vote, among lay members. A previous attempt in 2012 failed when 74 lay members voted against, preventing the attainment of the majority among the laity that was needed. The church voted in 1992 to ordain female priests but has spent the last two decades resisting the next step.
But it took a closing speech of astonishing force and passion by a blind evangelical Christian, who became a managing director of Lloyds bank after he had lost his sight, to win over the last waverers. Speaking to the key evangelical community opposed to the measure, John Spence told them: “Your faith is my faith, is all of our faith, and every one of us has a vital role to ensure that the searing vision of the risen Christ is taken out into this country. Trust not misplaced. You like me will come to see … I am confident that we can walk hand in hand, and return the risen Christ to his rightful place at the centre of this country, its conscience and its culture.”
The vote means that the first woman might become a suffragan (assistant) bishop in the spring next year, and her appointment could be announced before the new year. But because the legislative process will not be complete before the synod next meets, in November, it will not be legal to place women on the shortlist for consideration as a diocesan bishop before then.
This means that the earliest a woman might take her place in the synod’s house of bishops is next summer.
The first diocesan job to become open to women is Gloucester, whose next bishop will be chosen at a meeting in early January, followed by Oxford and then Newcastle. Michael Perham, the retiring bishop of Gloucester, said on Monday that sentiment in his diocese was very much in favour of women, and that only one vote had been cast against female bishops in the diocesan synod.
Twenty-seven of the earlier resistors had changed their minds, among them Tom Sutcliffe, who said the measure would now bring “episcopal femininity”, which would enrich the church.
The conservative evangelical block, which holds that men must never be taught by women, was not entirely pacified by the promise that a male bishop will be appointed who shares their view that the “headship” of the church must be male. Several of their speakers expressed the fear that if men and women were treated as equal in the church this would undermine the arguments against samesex marriage, which they now regard as a much more important battle.
Although the influential conservative evangelical Philip Giddings announced early in the debate that he would vote in favour of the new legislation, a number of speakers from his faction, many of them women, announced their continuing opposition and complained that they had been marginalised for their convictions.
But the Anglo-Catholics who had opposed female bishops on grounds of tradition yielded in larger numbers. They have not changed their views, but they are reconciled now to persisting in a church that rejects their understanding of the issue.
The bishop of Chelmsford, praised the spirit of good feeling, even among many of the losers: “The last thing Rowan Williams said to the synod, after the 2012 defeat, was: ‘When there is no trust, put trust in, and you will pull trust out’. And Justin has built his whole strategy on building trust, and making sure that no one feels at the end that they have lost. Of course, some people did, but we have managed good disagreement here. And that is significant for the next set of arguments, about gay marriage.”
Granted that this report, by the Guardian’s Religious Correspondent, Andrew Brown, may espouse a particular view of the result of the Church of England’s General Synod vote on the enablement of the Ordination of Women to the Episcopate in the C. of E.; there can be no doubt that the applause that greeted the decision reflected the majority feeling on the Synod floor.
Interesting, though, is the fact that it was not the Anglo-Catholics in the Synod that were to prove the most resistant to Women as Bishops (even though it was those of their number who left the Church of England for the R.C. Ordinariate after the ordination of women as priests), but rather the Conservative Evangelicals of ‘Reform’, that might have been the greatest threat to the vote for women bishops. However, in the words of one of them, quoted in this report:
‘ it took a closing speech of astonishing force and passion by a blind evangelical Christian, who became a managing director of Lloyds bank after he had lost his sight, to win over the last waverers. Speaking to the key evangelical community opposed to the measure, John Spence told them: “Your faith is my faith, is all of our faith, and every one of us has a vital role to ensure that the searing vision of the risen Christ is taken out into this country. Trust not misplaced. You like me will come to see … I am confident that we can walk hand in hand, and return the risen Christ to his rightful place at the centre of this country, its conscience and its culture.” ‘
What will need to be looked at now, in the wake of this overwhelming turn-around from the previous G.S. defeat of the legislation, is how the built-in provisions for conscientious objectors to the Measure will be administered to ensure maximum effectiveness of the combined House of Bishops that will result from the inclusion of women into that formerly all-male precinct.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand