For lots of people outside the Church of England or any other kind of Christianity, the idea that there is a 'debate' around the issue of women bishops is kind of strange. After all, women got the vote at the same age as men in 1928 in the UK, and equal pay legislation arrived in 1970.
The first thing to understand is that the Church of England, like all churches, is less concerned with keeping up with the times than it is with being true to God. If the world around says something is right, but the Bible says it's wrong, then the Church is probably going to defer towards the Bible. Although in an interview recently the Bishop of Oxford said that the C of E did have a duty to "reflect the life of the nation", being a holy Church is ultimately more important than being a relatable one. This is part of the reason why Christians seem to the outside world so obsessed with the questions surrounding homosexuality, as it is an issue of conflict between many in the Christian community and the wider morality of the non-Christian world.
But for the Church of England, the Bible isn't the only source of authority on these matters. Richard Hooker, an important theologian from the sixteenth century, created the basis of what is now known as the "Three-Legged-Stool" of Anglican theology. From his work "Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie" we get the notion that all Anglican theology is based on a blend of Scripture, tradition, and reason (with Scripture being the most important). It is for this reason that change and development are possible within Anglicanism, as new reason may come to light, and new traditions may emerge. But the question then before us is, why for so long did these three legs keep women away from positions of Church leadership?
The first thing to understand is that from a Christian position, leadership should not be something we desire. Power should not be something we desire. The idea that having power is a good thing and that we should all seek more of it for ourselves is not something that the Bible speaks highly of in the slightest. Jesus rebuked James and John in Mark 10:35-45 for seeking authority in the Kingdom of Heaven, and he said in Matthew 20 that the first would be last and vice versa. Therefore, when considering whether or not men or women get leadership positions, it should not be considered as if one or the other 'looses out' as a result of being denied the role. So many in the Church of England regard this as something of a non-issue as far as gender equality is concerned. Their argument follows that if something is not a resource, then the equality of its distribution is irrelevant.
Next, we have to examine the question of what many in the Church call "male headship". This is the idea that the Bible regards the man ultimately as the head of the household. The New Testament talks about this a great deal, with the following perhaps being the most famous passage about it.
"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself."
This comes from Paul's letter to the Church in Ephesus, and is the basis of much of the modern Church's understanding of gender relations. It is important to note that because this is in the context of a marriage, the relationship is conditional. Wives are only to submit to their husbands if husbands are loving their wives as Christ loved the Church.
Many in the Church of England have taken the view that this passage extends more broadly to also include male headship in other areas. But this is not the only passage they take inspiration from.
"I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner."
This is from the first letter to Timothy, and is the primary verse that many in the more traditionalist camp of the Church of England use when they are discussing the question of whether or not women should be allowed to speak in the Church.
At first glance, it appears as though this is clearly cut and dried, but as was said earlier, the Bible is not the only source when it comes to Anglican authority. Many in the Church take the view that at this stage reason compels Anglicanism to alter its position. And also, this verse must be put in the context of other verses from broader points within Paul's writings, and the New Testement as a whole. Acts 18:26 shows us Priscilla, a woman, teaching Apollos a man. There are also several instances where Paul talks about women prophesying in the early Chruch, and prophesy was just as authoritative as "teaching" at the time, so there are many who ask whether in the letter to Timothy, Paul was talking about a specific problem with a specific group of women, as so often on other occasions he seems to be so praising of them.
The debate it seems then stems from the question of whether Paul's writings, and the wider writings about male headship, can or indeed should be applied in the modern day. The Church of England came to the conclusion that ultimately this debate could not be resolved, and so therefore they attempted to create a structure that would allow both groups to coexist alongside one another. That is the compromise that has gone forward with an overwhelming 378 – 8 vote recently, and God Willing, such co-existence can continue.