Church of England presses towards women bishops

Published 20 November 2013  |  
PA

This afternoon the General Synod of the Church of England voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion brought forward by the Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff, to accept the steering committee's suggestions and further advance the progress of women bishops.

This was not the end of the task, as unlike the 2012 November Synod vote, this was not a final decision, and thus did not require the two-thirds supermajority of each house that was asked for 12 months ago to the day.

However, with 378 in favour, 8 against, and 25 abstentions, it is considered unlikely that this move will fail in its later stages.

Bishop Langstaff said that it was perhaps "the grace of God" that the legislation of the 2012 proposals did not pass. Many in the debate were much happier with the new proposals which included the creation of an independent reviewer to oversee issues where traditionalist churches have issues with the leadership of a female bishop.

Although it was not clear exactly what would qualify someone for this post, Bishop Langstaff said that when considering candidates "Solomon comes to mind".

The likely overwhelming favourability of the vote was borne out when the chairman of the debate was unable to garner a more even distribution of opinions from those who requested to speak. Of the approximately 33 people who came to the microphone, only two openly stated that they would be voting no on this motion. Suzie Leafe of Truro objected to the idea that women bishops would be the ones who selected who the alternative male figures would be for traditionalist parishes, and David Banting of Chelmsford took issue with current ordination oaths, and requested new ones be drafted.

This kind of attitude was very much the exception, as member after member of the Synod declared that while the proposed motion might not be exactly what they wanted, they were prepared to go ahead with it anyway. One Synod member said that not taking this attitude left the possibility of people "pulling at thread[s]" which could cause what is widely described as a very fragile consensus to unravel. Bishop Christiopher Chessun of Southwark said that the fact the Synod had arrived at the position it found itself in now, only one year after what many called the "disastrous" vote of 2012 was "nothing short of miraculous".

However, there were some in the debate who intended to vote in favour, but were cautious about the possibility of those who disagreed with women bishops being pushed out in the long term. Richard Mantle of Ripon and Leeds, the first to speak, pointed out that thus far, no bishop that supported the ordination of women bishops had ever been replaced by one that did not. He went on to add that soon the Bishop of Chichester will be the only bishop left of a traditionalist view in the Synod under the age of 60. In expressing his caution, he stated, "History makes us naturally cautious of documents that promise peace in our time."

However, many others took the opposite view, objecting to elements of the motion that proposed to "ring-fence" at least one seat on the College of Bishops for someone of a traditionalist conservative evangelical view. Charles Read of Norwich said: "We do not normally appoint bishops based on one aspect of what they believe."

However, he too was prepared to go forward with the vote in favour, especially after Bishop Langstaff added some clarification that this would not be the kind of definite "ring-fence" many had discussed. In describing how he felt about the motion in general, Mr Read said that he was reminded of a specific prayer given to people of the INTJ Myers-Briggs personality type (introversion, intuition, thinking, judgment) "Lord help me to be open to the ideas of others, wrong though they may be."

Accepting others ideas and providing accommodation for them was perhaps the most overriding theme of the discussion.

Rachel Treweek of London said: "Everyone has given something up, everyone can maintain their integrity."

Christine Hardman of Southwark talked about her initial objection to the idea of an independent reviewer, and now spoke of how she was "going to get fat" given how much humble pie she would have to eat.

Several commented on the need of the Synod to work hard on this matter because of the external opinion of the Church, and of Christianity in England more generally.

Rosie Harper of Oxford said: "People out there don't care enough to be angry, but they do see us as weird… Young people think that Jesus is wonderful, but the Church is always telling people off… Let's stop being defined by who we exclude."

Bishop Langstaff said that while external opinion was important and that the C of E, as a state church, should "reflect the life of the nation", he cautioned that the Church "shouldn't get too hung up" on issues of PR and external image.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, pointed out one particular external opinion that he had heard, which he felt was relevant given the speed of recent reform. He described a granddaughter of his who had said: "The General Synod has the brakes of a juggernaut, and the power of a lawnmower."

Nevertheless, many others clearly were more concerned with how the world outside would see the Church, with Anne Martin of Guildford saying: "If we can't agree among ourselves, how can we be taken seriously as Christians outside the Church."

Bishop Langstaff concurred, but said that it was his belief that the process the Church has used to reach this point, the formulation of a steering committee with as wide as possible ideological spectrum, could be exported to the outside world to further other issues.

"The world outside has plenty of divisions of its own," Bishop Langstaff said when asked how the Synod compared to the wider world.

But as Christina Reece of St Albans said: "What the world watching will see and understand and take away from our vote on this will not just be what the Church of England thinks about women bishops, it will be what the Church thinks about Women."

Archbishop Sentamu, said that "we should not open Champagne bottles" because there was still much work to be done.

Bishop Langstaff, in comparing this year's vote to last year's "train wreck", said: "The train is on the tracks, there are several stations we have to pass through, but we are on time."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby said in a statement after the vote: "Today's overwhelming vote demonstrates the widespread desire of the Church of England to move ahead with ordaining women as bishops, and at the same time enabling those who disagree to flourish.

"There is some way to go, but we can be cautiously hopeful of good progress. The tone of the debate was strikingly warm and friendly, and a great debt of gratitude is owed to the Steering Committee for the draft legislation, and to those who facilitated the meetings so effectively.

"The more we learn to work together the more effective the church will be in meeting the huge challenges of spiritual renewal, and above all service to our communities, so as to both proclaim and demonstrate the reality of the love of Christ."

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