Church of England Votes to Allow Female Bishops


In a historic decision, the Church of England’s General Synod voted Monday to allow women to serve as bishops. The General Synod is the governing body which meets twice or thrice yearly to discuss and decide matters of great importance to the Church of England. In order for any measure to pass, a two-thirds majority must be achieved in all three parts of the Synod: The House of Bishops, the House of Clergy, and the House of Laity. The measure allowing the admission of women to the episcopate passed with a two-thirds majority in all three houses.

The decision comes at the heels of a 2012 vote in which a similar measure failed by just six votes in the House of Laity. Several key things have changed since the last vote. Perhaps the most important change is the addition of special provisions for traditionalists with theological objections to the measure. Parishes with objections can ask for a male alternative. Disputes will be decided by an  independent reviewer or ombudsman. These concessions were enough to sway some who were previously opposed. Despite the compromises, there were still two votes against in the House of Bishops, 25 in the House of Clergy, and 45 in the House of Laity.

Before the voting took place, Bishop James opened the floor for debate. The debate would go on for a total of five hours before voting took place. Bishops James acknowledged that many would have personal objections to the measure, but encouraged them to respect the views of the majority (in favor) by abstaining from the vote. There were 10 abstentions in the three houses combined. Bishop James said, “Wherever each of us stands on the spectrum of views, I want to suggest today that we have a responsibility to be guided, yes, by what we ourselves think, but also by what we assess to be the settled view of the great majority within the Church. And that means weighing carefully what the consequences would be for morale within the church and for our witness in the nation if the legislation were once again to fall, and we were thereby seen as frustrating the view of our wider church.” Bishop James also reminded the Synod that all eyes were upon them as they made their decision. He said, “Because we are the Church of England, our nation—is also taking a keen interest in what we say and do.”  It was well known that British Prime Minister David Cameron hoped the measure would pass. After it did, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, “Allowing women to become bishops is another long overdue step towards gender equality in senior positions. I welcome the Church of England’s decision which means that women can now play a full and equal role in the important work of the Church.” In order for the measure to become official, Parliament must approve. This is considered a legal formality, and the measure should come into effect at the next Synod meeting in November of this year.

Despite largely-widespread happiness at the passing of the measure, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby made sure to acknowledge those opposed.  After the outcome was announced, he said, “Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases disagreeing…As delighted as I am for the outcome of this vote I am also mindful of those within the Church for whom the result will be difficult and a cause of sorrow.” Three such groups in opposition are Reform, Forward in Faith, and the Catholic Group. Chairman of the Catholic group Simon Killwick said, “While we are deeply concerned about the consequences for the wider unity of the whole Church, we remain committed to working together with all the Church of England to further the mission of the Church to the nation.”  Director of Reform Susie Leafe elucidated some of the theological objections to the measure: “In principle the Bible teaches that men and women were created equal but different. God has different roles for us in the church and in the church family, and so for me bishop represents a role that is designed for man.” Many women seem to agree with her, and over 2,000 women signed a petition opposing the measure. Many other women disagree. One such woman is the Rev. Sally Hitchiner, who tweeted, “Just called my 8 year old niece ‘Lucy, guess what! Now you can be a bishop’…Confused ‘But I don’t want to be a bishop!’ ‘Yes but you CAN.’” Another supporter is the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu. He said, “This is a momentous day. Generations of women have served the Lord faithfully in the Church of England for centuries. It is a moment of joy today: the office of Bishop is open to them.”

The decision comes 22 years after the ordination of female priests was first approved. Women can already serve as bishops in a number of Anglican Communion branches, such as those in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand,  South Africa, Cuba, and Swaziland. During the five-hour debate preceding the vote, Sally Muggeridge, a member of the laity from Canterbury, read a message from retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “I’m thrilled to hope that our mother church…will do the right thing today: to allow women to become bishops, as we have in Swaziland and in Cape Town.

Wow, you are in for a great surprise and a treat. You will ask yourselves: why were we so timid for so long?

Go be praised. Yippee!”

Yippee, indeed.

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