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After a twelve-year legislative battle, the General Synod of the Church of England has rejected a move to consecrate women bishops.
In order to pass, the legislation required a 2/3 majority in all three Houses of Synod. Although there was enough support in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy to pass the measure, the House of Laity was just a few votes shy of the required majority. The final tally was as follows:
House of Bishops: 44 in favor, 2 against
House of Clergy: 148 in favor, 45 against
House of Laity: 132 in favor, 74 against
Earlier in the day, the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate and current Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, urged the Synod to support the measure. He said that the church needed to show that it could “Manage diversity of view without division – diversity in amity, not diversity in enmity.”
“We cannot get trapped into believing this is a zero sum decision where one person’s gain must be another’s loss.”
Also speaking in favor of the change, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Rev. James Jones, said that he had changed his mind on the issue. “I now believe that for the mission of God to the people of England it is right for women to take up their place in this House of Bishops sitting before you now.”
Canon Rosie Harper told the Synod that rejecting the measure would have dire consequences. “Firstly, as a Church for the whole country we will be seen to have failed to do what is right and honourable; a Church with lower moral standards than the rest of society risks its right to comment on other issues.”
“Secondly, it will inevitably be seen as the act of a dying Church more wedded to the past than committed to hope for the future.”
However, one of the Anglo-Catholic members of Synod, Canon Simon Killwick, claimed that the measure should be rejected because “it has united against it the whole spectrum of traditionalists.”
The Church of England has allowed women to become priests since 1994, but a vocal minority of Anglicans remains opposed to women in the ministry. ‘High Church’ Anglicans claim that the ordination of women flies in the face of two millennia of Catholic practice, while ‘Low Church’ Anglicans point to Bible verses that they say prohibit women from having authority over men.
When the first women were ordained, a host of measures were put in place to mollify traditionalists. Parishes that opposed the ordination of women could ban female priests from their pulpits, and they could even opt-out of their local bishop’s authority if he supported the ordination of women.
But the prospect of women bishops threatened to be even more problematic for traditionalists. Because they believe that it is theologically impossible for a woman to be a bishop, they would be unable to accept priests ordained by female bishops, even if the priests were male. And although traditionalist parishes would have been able to ask a female bishop to delegate her pastoral responsibilities to a male colleague, many were unhappy with that proposal because they believed that a female bishop would not have any authority to begin with.
In a last-minute bid to reassure traditionalists, the House of Bishops amended the proposal to include a clause stating that, not only could parishes request alternative episcopal oversight from a male bishop, that bishop would have to share their views on the ordination of women. In other words, alternative episcopal oversight could only be provided by a bishop who had not ordained women and had been ordained by a woman himself.
But this eleventh-hour compromise angered many liberals, who claimed it was tantamount to gender-based apartheid. A number of prominent liberal Synod members announced that they would vote against the entire package, claiming that it was better to delay the admission of women to the episcopate rather than admit them as second-class citizens.
Now that the measure has been defeated, supporters of female bishops will have to start the legislative process all over again. The current measure was first introduced in 2009, so it is likely that the General Synod will not be able to revisit the matter until 2015 at the earliest.
Image Courtesy : Scottgunn