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Consecrating female bishops in the Church of England

Steps taken during 2006 to mid 2008

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2006: Status of the Church of England in the eyes of the public:

The church in an awkward position -- between a rock and a hard place:

  • Some of its most devout members are traditionalists who refuse to accept female bishops; many refuse to even accept female priests. Their motivations vary:
    • Some follow a literal interpretation of the Christian Scriptures, a.k.a. the New Testament. They interpret passages allegedly written by Paul in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus as severely restricting the roles of women, and prohibiting their ordination. 1
    • Others sincerely believe that the ordinations and consecrations of women as clergy are invalid, and that any rituals performed by them would be without effect.
    • Some are simply misogynists.
  • British culture largely condemns racism, sexism and homophobia as serious social evils. The Church of England is one of the last institutions in the UK that still actively discriminates against women. The church is losing the confidence of the population because of sexism and other reasons. Church attendance is dropping rapidly as a result.

The church cannot change and yet cannot retain the same sexist policies without alienating large numbers of people.

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2006-JUL: General Synod vote approves female consecration in principle:

On 2006-JUL-08, at the General Synod of the Church of England in York, the Archbishop of York -- Rt. Reverend John Sentamu -- introduced a motion to approve the consecration of female bishops. 2

Christina Rees, Chair of Women and the Church (WATCH) -- a group supporting sexual equality -- said:

"This is a day we have been praying for. This is a significant and important day in the life of the Church. Now the Episcopal leadership of the Church of England will reveal in a new way what we say we believe - that women and men alike are made in the image of God."

This is an obvious reference to Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."3

The vote was 288 to 110 after a three-hour debate. It carried by more than a two-thirds majority among the bishops and clergy. If this level of support continues, a future synod would be able to pass the required legislation to actually consecrate female bishops. Because the Church of England is the state church, Parliament would then have to pass enabling legislation before consecrations could happen.

Organized religions are not known for speedy change. It is remarkable that the Church of England is considering women bishops after having opened the priesthood to women only 14 years ago, and having ordained its first female priest only 12 years ago.

However, although the theological impediments to consecration of women had been resolved, procedures to implement the change had not been worked out. Church spokesperson Ben Wilson said that "2012 was bandied about [for the first consecration], but that is looking a little premature now."

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, -- the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion --  has suggested that the best path forward might be to split the Church of England into two groups.

  • One would be composed of laity and clergy who want to continue discriminating against women as bishops
  • The other would be made up of laity and clergy who accept gender equality.

That way, conservative parishes could secede from any dioceses led by a female bishop, and obtain alternate episcopal oversight from bishops who opposed gender equality.

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Current status of women in the Anglican Communion's clergy:

As of 2006-JUL, fourteen of the 38 Provinces had accepted consecrated women bishops in principle: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, North India, Philippines, Scotland, Southern Africa and Sudan.

Of these, three -- Canada, New Zealand and the United States -- had already consecrated women bishops. 1

In 2008-MAY-22, Australia consecrated its first woman bishop: Kay Goldsworthy in Perth. On MAY-31, Barbara Darling was consecrated in Melbourne.

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2008-MAY-14:  Women priests sent an open letter to their bishops:

There are more than 2,000 women ordained as priests in the Church of England. More than 700 of them signed an open letter to the bishops of the Church of England in advance of the mid-year synod.

They firmly stated that they wanted to be eligible to be consecrated as bishops, but not at any price. In the words of WATCH, they are keen to:

"... be bishops on a par with their male colleagues. [However, they] "... don't want their their ministry to be fenced around with restrictions in order to 'protect' those who will not accept them." 2

The open letter says, in part:

"We welcome the work done by the Legislative Drafting Group outlining ways forward for the Church with regard to the consecration of women as bishops. ..."

"We believe that it should be possible for women to be consecrated as bishops, but not at any price. The price of legal “safeguards” for those opposed is simply too high, diminishing not just the women concerned, but the catholicity, integrity and mission of the episcopate and of the Church as a whole.   We cannot countenance any proposal that would, once again, enshrine and formalize discrimination against women in legislation.  With great regret, we would be prepared to wait longer, rather than see further damage done to the Church of England by passing discriminatory laws.  In this, we support the recent principled stand taken by the Archbishop and Bishops of the Church in Wales." 4

"After 21 years of ordained ministry and 14 years of priesthood, many of us have much experience of building trustful relationships with those unable to accept the priestly ministry of women.  In the Anglican Communion overseas, women take this experience into the episcopate, which leads them to invite other bishops into their Dioceses or Episcopal areas to ordain, confirm and take other services when required.  Bishops should be trusted to act wisely and behave with dignity, and all bishops should work within clear expectations and codes of practice. The language of “protection” and “safeguard” is offensive to women, and we believe the existing disciplinary procedures are enough for women or men to be brought to account if they behave inappropriately. We would commend the good practice over the past 20 years of the 15 Anglican Provinces which have already opened the episcopate to women: none of these has passed discriminatory legislation." 

"Discussion of a single clause measure without including the possible arrangements for those opposed,  characterizes those who argue for it as somehow “not caring” about those who oppose the ordination/consecration of women.  This is far from the truth.  Strong relationships have been forged on the anvil of profound disagreement and there is ample testimony to the richness of these encounters, to set alongside those situations which have proved painful.  As the broken body of Christ on earth, the Church’s internal relationships should rest on trust, forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation, rather than on protection and an over-anxious reliance on the letter of the law. Work has already been done on a draft proposal of robust and clear arrangements that make the passing of a single clause measure realistic in today’s Church, as well as theologically and ecclesiologically cohesive."

"We long to see the consecration of women bishops in the Church of England, and believe it is right both in principle and in timing.  But because we love the Church, we are not willing to assent to a further fracture in our communion and threat to our unity.  If it is to be episcopacy for women qualified by legal arrangements to “protect” others from our oversight, then our answer, respectfully, is thank you, but no." 5

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This topic continues with information on more recent developments

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Notes and references:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. We use the word "allegedly" because most theologians believe that the Titus and Timothy epistles were not written by St. Paul. Rather, they were composed by an unknown forger who wrote in Paul's name during the 2nd century CE, some 35 to 85 years after Paul's death. These writings thus reflect the developing biases of the early Christian church, rather than Jesus or Paul's teachings. Many theologians also believe that the passage 1 Corinthians 14:34b-35 which requires women to remain silent in church was inserted into the original writing by an unknown person at an unknown date. If it is not part of Paul's original writing, it cannot be considered authoritative.
  2. "Women bishops for the Church of England," WATCH, 2006-JUL-08. at: http://www.watchwomen.com/ **
  3. From the King James Version of the Bible.
  4. Women priests in the Church of Wales -- a separate Anglican province -- took a similar stand. As a result, a recent motion to allow the consecration of women bishops was defeated.
  5. Women priests say 'no' to women bishops at any price," Times Online, 2008-MAY-14, at: http://timescolumns.typepad.com/
  6. Ruth Gledhill, "Church of England votes to ordain women bishops," The Times, 2008-JUL-08, at: http://wwrn.org/
  7. Muriel Porter, "Accepting women bishops," Australian Broadcast Corp., 2008-JUL-10, at: http://www.abc.net.au/
  8. "Synod votes in favour of women as bishops, with a Code of Practice," WATCH news, Accessed 2008-JUL-11, at: http://watchwomen.com/ This will be a temporary listing.
  9. "Statement from Vatican," Forward in Faith, 2008-JUL-08, at: http://www.forwardinfaith.com/
  10. John Fulham, "A Message from the Chairman of Forward in Faith," 2008-JUL-09. at: http://www.forwardinfaith.com/
  11. "Church of England plans male 'superbishops' for rebel clergy who refuse to be led by women," Daily Mail, 2008-JUL-06, at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/
  12. Hilary White, "Anglicans to Catholics: Ready or Not, Here we Come. Church of England General Synod to touch off an exodus by approving women bishops," Life Site News, 2008-JUL-07, at: http://www.lifesitenews.com/
  13. Daniel Blake, "54 Anglican Clergy to Defect to Catholic Church in Pentecost Ordinations," The Christian Post, 2011-JUN-04, at: http://www.christianpost.com/

** This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 

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Copyright © 2006 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-JUN-13
Author: Bruce A. Robinson
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