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Consecrating female bishops in the Church of England

Reactions to the 2012 Synod vote denying
women priests consecration to the Episcopate.
2013-JUL: Move to restart process.

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This is a continuation from the previous essay

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2012-NOV-10: Responses to the Synod vote:

Many Anglicans expected that the twelve year process to authorize the consecration of female priests to the Episcopate would end with a positive vote on motion GS1708D by the House of Bishops, House of Clergy, and House of Laity. The former two Houses passed the legislation with more than the required two-thirds majority. The House of Laity also voted in favor of the legislation. However, their vote was short by 6 votes from achieving the needed two-thirds majority. The legislation failed.

  • Megan Gibson of Time Magazine commented:

    "Female bishops are already common in the Anglican churches in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, and many in Britain were shocked at the Synod’s decision, which was widely expected to go the other way. The Rev. George Pitcher, an Anglican priest at London’s St. Bride’s, was stunned by the vote, saying that it could cause 'chaos in the Church of England.' The decision was also a blow to both the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has long supported the move, as well as the incoming Archbishop, Justin Welby, who endorsed female bishops in his first address from Lambeth Palace just two weeks ago. 'I will be voting in favor,' Welby told a group of reporters on Nov. 9. 'And join my voice to many others in urging the Synod to go forward with this change.'

    Though it’s not the most divisive issue facing the wider, worldwide Anglican community — that would be the question of gay marriage — ordaining female bishops has caused serious conflict within the Church of England for years now. According to Pitcher, the church is divided between reformers who want to see the church evolve and conservatives who are against the Church of England becoming a 'mainstream, liberal, Episcopal — as in the States’ — type of church.' Traditionalist members and clergy have been especially firm in their views that only men should serve in the role of bishops, believing it to be scripturally sound. 'We accept that there are different interpretations of the Scriptures,' Jane Patterson, a member of the conservative evangelical group Reform, told the Guardian, 'but the church needs to guard against placing society’s views over what we see as God’s views, as expressed in his written word, the Bible'." 1

  • The current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams said:

    "Of course I hoped and prayed that this particular business would be at another stage before I left, and... it is a personal sadness, a deep personal sadness, that that is not the case." 2

  • His successor. the Right Rev. Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham issued a tweet:

    "Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and co-operate with our healing God."

  • Rt. Rev Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich, said:

    "Obviously, it is very disappointing that the vote was lost so narrowly."

  • Lucy Winkett, who would have been eligible to be considered for consecration to the episcopacy said that the synod was:

    "... detonating its credibility with contemporary Britain."

  • Women and the Church (Watch), a group promoting the legislation said the voting result was a

    "... devastating blow for the Church of England and the country."

  • The Rev Rachel Weir, chairperson of Watch, said

    "This is a tragic day for the Church of England after so many years of debate and after all our attempts at compromise. ... Despite this disappointing setback, Watch will continue to campaign for the full acceptance of women's gifts of leadership in the Church's life."

  • Synod member Susie Leafe said that the proposed legislation was faulty. She said:

    "There were a lot of places along the way that we could have had a measure in front of us that wouldn't have been voted down, and it's very sad that this was able to go on without us facing the reality of the situation."

  • The Catholic Group in General Synod which opposed the legislation said in a statement:

    "Mediation and conciliation are needed so that new legislation can be framed to provide fairly for all members of the Church of England.

    We regret the synod was put in the position whereby draft legislation failed at final approval because it was unclear and unfair in its provision for those who, in conscience, are unable to accept the ministry of women as bishops or priests.

    The Catholic Group calls on the House of Bishops to reconvene the talks started in the summer between representatives of different groups, chaired by Bishop Justin Welby. ... The Catholic Group is committed to playing a full part in the process of achieving good legislation to enable us all to move forward together in mission and service to the nation."

  • Together 4ward, another Traditionalist group said:

    "We are reflecting on and praying about the outcome of general synod, and will make a fuller statement in due course. ... We are, however, pleased that synod has chosen not to pass the Women Bishops Measure in its current form, which we believe would not have allowed the Church to go forward together." 2

  • Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Sir Tony Baldry is the Second Church Estates Commissioner and is responsible for answering questions from fellow MPs that involve the Church of England. He questioned whether the process by which members were elected to the House of Laity was "sufficiently representative." He said:

    "What has happened as a consequence of the decision by general synod is the Church of England no longer looks like a national church, it simply looks like a sect like any other sect. If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation. ... It is impossible for me to explain to parliamentary colleagues how a measure that has had the support of 42 out of the 44 dioceses failed to pass in general synod." 3

  • Labour MP Diana Johnson said that it is vital that the Church of England:

    "... is led by the very best, not just those who happen to be male. There should be no stained-glass ceiling for women in our church. The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision. ... A broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds."3

  • Conservative MP Elanor Laing said:

    "When the decision-making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question."

The BBC article that contained some of the above comments received 1.941 comments by its readers over the next three days. 2 The nine postings most highly rated by readers of the article were all critical of the Synod vote:

  • JREyre: "Well done Church of England. You have just guaranteed your irrelevance in the 21st century a little more."

  • Telanian: "Perfectly understandable decision; the Bible is very clear that it is inappropriate for a woman to have authority over a man. Of course, the Bible is also clear that slavery is fine, gays are evil, and that a raped woman should be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). It is for these reasons (and others) that I am no longer a Christian, and I am glad to be rid of it!

  • IgnoranceSmasher: "BREAKING NEWS: Church is out of step with modern life, cows say moo, more at 10."

  • NoisySilentMajority: "Says all you need to know about the ‘modern’ Christian church. Backward, regressive thinking. No wonder people are rejecting religion in their droves. There is no connection with reality. Glad I’m an atheist."

  • ShoXx: "Showing religion is still living in the middle ages."

  • Stemann: "Not sure why I bother to criticize religion, they're making a fine job of it themselves."

  • Corona: "Good news for secularists and another example of how antiquated the Church of England is. It is an absolute farce that we still have a state religion and 26 men are allowed to sit in the second chamber of our government by virtue of 'God'. We need disestablishment, we need equality for everyone and we need it yesterday!"

  • Resistance: "Religion: the fool's tool for sexism, racism, homophobia, and ignorance."

  • BillHaverchuck, responding to an earlier comment that one can't just twist the Bible to suit your needs, wrote: "Yes you can. That is why we no longer stone people to death for committing adultery."

The Economist magazine commented:

  • "There was immediate talk of a church "committing suicide."

  • "... 42 of the church’s 44 dioceses are in favour, as are three-quarters of the general public which matters to an established church."

  • "What has been rejected is a fudged compromise between liberals on the one hand and Anglo-Catholic traditionalists and conservative evangelicals on the other.

    Under it, women could have been consecrated as bishops, but those unable to accept them would have been able to request a male stand-in. Many in the pro-women-bishops camp found this humiliating, whereas their opponents felt the proposed wording, calling for their wishes to be “respected”, failed to provide a cast-iron guarantee that a woman [bishop] would not be imposed upon them. The majority nonetheless believed that, after many years of bitter wrangling, this was the best arrangement they were likely to get. 4

The House of Bishops held an emergency meeting the next day to discuss the fallout from the vote.

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The path forward:

With such a strong majority of Bishops, clergy and laity in favor of the legislation, the Synod will probably find it difficult to handle the massive disappointment within the Church. They will also have to withstand brutal criticism by the public and media. Many critics will probably call for the disestablishment of the Church of England as the official Church.

Hopefully, the Synod will consider relaxing the stringent requirements for passage of future legislation. Some might consider it unrealistic to require a two thirds majority in all three Houses which are composed of individuals with such different opinions. Perhaps a 60% majority could be considered sufficient, or even a plain majority. Alternately, a simply majority by all three Houses plus a 60% majority by at least two Houses might be adopted.

There is a special mechanism by which a second vote might be taken on the same legislation by a subsequent Synod. 3 Synods are held every six months. Alternately, revisions could be made to the 2012 legislation and a new vote taken. If the revisions were minor, the new wording would not have to be reviewed by the individual dioceses; it could be voted on directly by the next or subsequent Synod.

If and when the consecration of women as bishops is eventually implemented, the relationship between the Methodists and Anglicans in England will probably become closer. However, an additional strain would appear in the Church of England's relationship with much of the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion the and Roman Catholic church. To the Roman Catholic Church, even the ordination of women as deacons is forbidden. Female Catholic priests and bishops are inconceivable. The role of women in the Catholic Church is a hot-button item. Debate and even dialogue on these topics by clergy and academics in that Church are discouraged and sometimes suppressed.

After the Church of England first ordained women as priests in 1992, 720 priests found the situation so intolerable that they felt compelled to leave the denomination. About 400 priests joined the Roman Catholic Church even though many, if not most, were married. The exodus opened up hundreds of posts for female Anglican priests to fill.

There is no firm information about how many clergy will leave if and when women are allowed to be consecrated as bishops. Estimates range from a very few to 1,000. Allowing female bishops would mean that some male priests would be under the authority of a woman. Some male conservative clergy might find this so unacceptable that they might abandon the church in droves. On the other hand, to continue with the present sexist policies are driving the laity -- particularly older teens and young adults -- from the denomination in droves.

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2013-JUL: The General Synod of the Church of England reaffirmed its support for female bishops. Delegates called for the introduction of new draft legislation to approve the consecration of female bishops. It is expected to be voted upon by the Synod in 2013-NOV, with the goal of final approval in 2015-JUL or DEC, and the consecration of the first female bishops at a later date. 5

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References used:

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

  1. Megan Gibson, "The Church of England Votes Against Female Bishops," 2012-NOV-21, at: http://world.time.com
  2. "Women bishops: Church of England general synod votes against," BBC News UK, 2012-NOV-20, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk
  3. "Women bishops vote: Church of England 'resembles sect'," BBC News UK, 2012-NOV-22, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/
  4. "Thou shalt not: Women are rebuffed from the episcopate, for now," The Economist, 2012-NOV-24, at: http://www.economist.com/
  5. "C of E to vote on women bishops again," Anglican Journal, 2013-JUL-10, at: http://www.anglicanjournal.com/
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Copyright © 2012 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2013-JUL-11
Author: Bruce A. Robinson
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