Church of England 'commits suicide' over women bishops

Bishops, politicians and media commentators are shocked at laity's backward step

LAST UPDATED AT 08:57 ON Wed 21 Nov 2012

CONDEMNATION is raining down on the Church of England this morning following the failure last night of the General Synod to approve the ordination of women bishops by enough votes.

The measure was passed by a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops and House of Clergy. However, the House of Laity - the unordained, ordinary members of the Church - could only manage 132 in favour to 74 against, a margin that fell short of the two-thirds majority required for women bishops to be approved.

The defeat leaves the Church of England bitterly divided, and the bishops will meet this morning to "consider the consequences of the vote", according to a spokesperson.

The vote is a blow to the Right Reverend Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham who takes over as Archbishop of Canterbury next year. He had spoken out passionately in favour of women bishops, but last night he made his disappointment known. "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," he tweeted.

The outgoing Archbishop, Rowan Williams, was also an advocate of women bishops. He said: "Of course I hoped and prayed that this particular business would be at another stage before I left... It is a personal sadness, a deep personal sadness that that is not the case."

But why did so many lay representatives vote against the wishes of their leaders, the bishops and clergy? Lizzy Davies in The Guardian explains that many in the pro-women bishops lobby believe the laity "has become more dominated by special interests - often conservative ones – since the vote to allow women to become priests in 1992".

She quotes Tony Baldry, the Conservative MP who speaks for the Church in Parliament: "I think what has happened over the last 20 years... is that the representatives of the General Synod have become more representatives of tribes of the Church of England. So, Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals... come here to represent their own tribal loyalty rather than the Dioceses they represent."

Media commentary is almost universally condemnatory of the rejection of women bishops.

"Yesterday was a sad and shameful day for the Church of England and therefore for the country of which it is the established religion," says a Times editorial. The paper places the blame on a "small but highly motivated group of fundamentalists more interested in factional organisation, textual analysis and strict orthodoxy than in the real world" and Rowan Williams, whose "leadership was too cerebral, too absorbed with his own intellectual anguish" to prevail in this, "his great test".

The Independent believes the Church has lost some of its moral authority at a time when its voice is needed most. "Yesterday's vote can only mean the Church's voice will have less credibility in areas where its contribution ought to be welcomed - be that on banking reform, the ethical behaviour of big business, fairness in public spending cuts... On all these, the Church might have much to say. But after yesterday's betrayal of the principles of equality, will anyone listen?"

The Guardian's Andrew Brown calls yesterday's Synod debate "a ghastly mixture of tedium and bad faith". He adds: "I think I have just watched the Church of England commit suicide. It was a very long and very boring process...

"One speaker said, as if it mattered: 'I don't believe that this is legislation that will allow the world to look at the Church tonight and see Jesus Christ'; and no one pointed out that back on planet earth, the world will look at the Church today and say: 'Jesus Christ!'" · 

Disqus - noscript

Blessed are the humble for they shall inherit the earth! I’ll bet that there won’t be many bishops in line for an inheritance. Being ‘Umble is just not their thing! How dare the laity defy their known wishes?

The comments shouting criticism of this vote are ludicrous! This "church" is supposed to have the Bible as it's rule book, constitution and source of all it is supposed to be. Obviously journalists and the world at large are not conversant with what's in that Book, or just don't care. One of those very clear and unalterable rules is that women cannot be pastors, let alone bishops! If you want to throw out the Bible - and God and Jesus Christ with it - then do so, but stop calling yourself a "Christian church". Become a club instead.

I voted for women priests in 1992 and I am in principle keen that we should have women bishops in the Church of England. But I voted against the Measure being proposed for final approval yesterday. I had two main reasons for voting no.

The Provision is not sufficient
It simply is not true that it made appropriate provisions for the two minorities of less than a third of Church members who cannot accept the ordination or consecration of women as being consistent with their understanding of scripture and tradition. It may well be that traditionalist Anglo-Catholics could have lived awkwardly with the Measure as proposed had it got through. But conservative evangelicals would have been severely affected and in an impossible position.

Promises have been forgotten
People seem to have forgotten the promises that were made to the minority that their integrity would not be challenged as fully-fledged and authentic members of the CofE during the current and ongoing "period of reception" of the whole issue of ordaining and consecrating women. It would have been disastrous for a Church to flagrantly over-ride assurances it once gave.

Why vote for a shrinking footprint?
The truth is that, in July with Clause 5.1.c as then proposed, the Measure stood a chance of being accepted by those most adversely affected by it and I might have voted for it then. But after that clause was watered down and talked merely of respect - a word which is no reassurance at all to anybody who has been attending to developments in The Episcopal Church on the other side of the Atlantic - it was likely to lead to grief and further departures. And I absolutely do not want to see the Church of England ending up as a result of our in my view correct determination to include women in the ordained ministry at all levels with an even smaller footprint. I do not want the Church to vote to shrink more, and there is no doubt that the ordination of women has not had the entirely positive effect that was anticipated. It has not led to an increase in the membership or the effectiveness of our church, however good most women priests have been. The decline in numbers and in status and in the respect in which we are held by ordinary citizens who are not active members has become precipitate.

The wrong foundations
This Measure was drawn up on the wrong basis and is I believe fundamentally misguided in its approach. All along it has been far too influenced by Synod members who believed that the Act of Synod (which has kept the Church united for the last 20 years in spite of the disagreement over the decision to ordain women) needed to be displaced if at all possible. That was why the Measure before us was so clerical - especially in its removal of the right of parish laity on their own account (and without the approval of their parish priest) to decide whether in their church they wanted to have a woman celebrating the eucharist. The determination by proponents that women bishops should be exactly the same as men bishops ignored the reality that right across the Anglican Communion, there are many who do not accept women as bishops or in many cases as priests - many on both the conservative Evangelical and conservative Catholic wings.
Those of us who want women to be bishops as I do simply have to accept that what we are doing with our change in the law is to enable a possibility not to insist on a new theological certainty. While there are many (though a minority) who do not accept women as bishops, women bishops simply cannot be quite the same as men bishops. A woman bishop in Hereford diocese would be uncontroversial in that territory. But a women bishop in London or Chichester would be out of the question. That is the difference between women bishops and men who are bishops - and nothing we can do in a Measure to permit women to be bishops can change that.

Continuing argument
So the determination that lay behind the proposed Measure to over-ride all that had been learnt about living with difference during the last two decades - thanks to the Act of Synod and the arrangements for alternative oversight which it put in place - was wilfully misguided in my view. The assurances given to those in the minority of a traditionalist view were worthless because the Code of Practice, even when it had been set up, would have been open to constant revision and would have been a target for further adjustment when the campaigners from GRAS and Affirming Catholicism had managed to squeeze out of the Church all those people with whom they disagree on this matter and whom they do not think belong within the reformed liberal Anglicanism that they seek. This element of passionately committed supporters of the ordination of women made no secret of their determination to insist that the Church of England in their view should drive out anybody who did not accept women’s ordination. We would have been allowing a process stretching into the future of continuing ferment and argument about how to accommodate or manage those who could not accept women clergy. That would have been dishonest and debilitating for the Church and very bad for mission. Conservative evangelical and some Anglo-catholic parishes are thriving. The Church of England was created to be an inclusive National Church and we must honour that tradition established by Queen Elizabeth I in the long reign of her successor Queen Elizabeth II.
The Church needs to speak not with one tongue, but with many tongues as it always has. Legalism and intolerance are bad Christianity, but they are what the proposed Measure was very likely to increase. We were told over and over again that provision was being made for those who reject women clergy and bishops. But this was simply untrue. It was a lie. These minorities had sought arrangements on which they could rely. But instead what they had said they needed had been consistently rejected - or, when the Archbishops made some effort to achieve a compromise that would work for them, neither Archbishop managed the process of promoting what they were proposing at all well. That was how the Church arrived at this situation fraught as it was with dishonesty and illusion. That the vote went against the Measure despite the immense pressure placed on the Laity should suggest that what was being proposed was seen as a serious problem. It was defeated by a coalition that included many lay people who want there to be women bishops but not by dishonest inadequate means that were demonstrably not fit for purpose.

A simpler future
There is a much simpler way of proceeding and it is what we should adopt now. We should follow what seems to be the Welsh Anglican way, which I believe will suit us much better too. A simple Measure should be proposed to allow women to be eligible for the episcopate in future, but it should be stated in that Measure that before it can come into operation a second Measure making proper and full arrangements for those who cannot accept women bishops will have to be passed and to have come into operation. By such means we can honour the promises and commitments given to the minority. We can ensure that in principle there is absolutely no difference between men and women in the episcopate. But at the same time we can provide watertight practical legal processes whereby those who cannot accept women bishops are catered for properly by the institutional Church as a whole - and without the incredibly unwieldy separate diocesan systems proposed in the failed Measure.
The idea that we should have simply written off the valuable lesson and practical effectiveness of the last 20 years living and growing more mature with Archbishop Hapgood's cleverly constructed Act of Synod was ridiculous. Nor should we over-ride the promises that were made when we embarked on the in my view vital reform of including women in the ordained ministry at all levels. No doubt my voting against the Measure will have made me, as a former Affirming Catholic and convinced liberal, even more unpopular with some colleagues and friends. As a supporter of the ordaining and consecrating of women I gave this matter very serious thought. I voted against the Measure as proposed because it was a bad Measure, and absolutely not because I oppose permitting indeed encouraging women to become bishops now that they have served with such distinction at all other levels of the Church.
I regret having had to make this decision. But I believe it was right.
Tom Sutcliffe
Southwark laity

In Celtic times religion was heavily with women. Popularity of Royalty is with women. A lot of women are in congregations. Why deny them what they may want?

Amused by your condemnation of the "world at large" for not being conversant with what's in "that Book" because you clearly don't know anything about the history of the Bible. That collection of Stone Age myths and half-remembered folk tales was continually redacted, edited and rewritten throughout its formative history. There is no such thing as a "clear and unalterable rule" there, because the rules were made up to suit particular situations and particular times.

On the other hand, as a happy atheist, I think this whole argument is as relevant to the 21st century as two bald men arguing over a comb.

I think the vote has left the Church a laughing stock & questions should now be asked about its status as the established church. Anyone with a the slightest amount of academic rigour would realise that the Bible was cherry-picked by earthly people from available sources well after Jesus walked on the Earth and that using it as a 'rule book' would lead us very quickly into conflict with our current society particularly, for example, if we took the Book of Leviticus as our guide. The Church has voted itself back to Victorian times and has left the vast majority of its dwindling membership shocked; after all, when the dioceses were canvassed 42 out of 44 (including lay people) voted for women bishops.

You seem blind to the fact, Mr Wilson, that the C of E holds the Bible dear and central to its very existence, never mind it being a collection of myths as you quite ignorantly declare.

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.