20 Nov 2012

Church of England votes against women bishops

After years of tortured debate that has polarised factions within the Church of England, the General Synod rejects legislation that would allow women to be ordained as bishops.

Conservative MP Tony Baldry, who speaks for the church in the House of Commons, told Channel 4 News he would find the decision it “almost impossible to explain to parliamentary colleagues”.

He said the church appeared “inward-looking” and a refuge for Anglo-Catholics and conservatives.

The vote has been 12 years in the making, and comes 20 years after women priests were first introduced. But the Church of England’s national assembly on Tuesday voted against women bishops, plunging the church into turmoil.

Despite being approved by the house of bishops and house of clergy, the draft legislation was rejected by the General Synod’s lay members, so could not be passed. Each of the synod’s three houses needed two-thirds approval for a vote to go through to parliament. In the house of laity, 74 voted against, compared to 132 in favour with no abstentions.

The result will be seen as a major blow to the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Reverend Justin Welby, who launched a campaign in favour of a yes vote last month.

The vote comes after a series of speakers opposed giving final approval to the legislation. Canon Simon Killwick, a vicar in Moss Side, Manchester, chairman of the Catholic group in the General Synod, urged members to vote against the legislation.

“I do not believe that this draft legislation will be good for the Church of England,” he said. “We are all desperate to move on from the sad infighting of the last few years – but this legislation does not provide a clear way forward.”

Act of a dying church?
“Sitting listening to the debate on women bishops in the General Synod is an insight into how far removed the Church of England is from modern life,” says Channel 4 News reporter Katie Razzall. “Indeed this church parliament has been told today, by a female member, Jane Patterson, ‘not to bow to cultural pressure’. Because, of course, outside the Church of England, most people can’t understand how the church can have spent so long debating an issue that looks like a straight forward case of discrimination. Where else would men and women – yes, women, many of them – be arguing that it is OK, in the modern world, to allow a situation where women can’t be in the top jobs?

“But that’s what’s happening here. For traditionalists in the Anglo-Catholic and evangelical wings of the church, women bishops are a theological impossibility. The Bishop of Chichester, Rt Rev Dr Martin Warner argued a vote against them ‘does not mean we believe women are inferior’. His fellow members of the Church of England may believe him; the outside world probably doesn’t. And many inside the church understand that and know it’s deeply damaging. A no vote, the Rev Canon Rosie Harper told the synod, would be the ‘act of a dying church’.”

From company boardrooms to business colleges, the national conversation on gender equality in the workplace has for years focused on the best way to get women into senior jobs. But at the Church of England’s national assembly the debate was about if – not how – women should be allowed to rise to the top.

Around a third of priests in the church are female, and there is a growing pool from which women bishops could be chosen, but women have so far been exempt from the higher echelons.

A negative outcome has the potential to further polarise the church between traditionalists, who believe that men and women, while equal, have different roles in the church in the eyes of God, and those who support equality throughout the church’s layers of seniority.

“Liberals will be spewing fire if it doesn’t go through,” said religion commentator Peter Ould, an Anglican priest. “Expect a lot of use of words like ‘bigot’ and ‘misogynist’.”

Women already serve as Anglican bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but the Church of England, and its 80 million members worldwide, has struggled to reconcile the dispute between reformers and traditionalists on whether to allow them.

And if it seems like this debate has been discussed for years, that is because it has: the process of approving legislation began back in 2000. But the initial proposal has been followed by years of tortuous negotiations and wrangling about how best to accommodate those parishes which reject the authority of a woman bishop.

The current legislation proposes that a woman bishop would delegate to a stand-in male bishop to minister to parishes which rejected her authority. A minority of 944 out of 12,792 parishes in the Church of England curently refuse to have a woman vicar.

There are other religions which ban women from taking any official positions at all, including Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism. In some schools of Islam, women imams can lead congregations of women and children. But do any non-religious British organisations ban women from the top jobs? While few appear to ban women from positions of seniority specifically, there are some which ban women from being members.

Some prestigious golf clubs, including the Royal & Ancient in St Andrews which organises The Open Championship, appear to be the main offenders in the UK. In answer to criticism for its male-only status, the R&A has pointed out that only 1 per cent of golf clubs are exclusive to men. The problem is that the clubs which ban women are the most famous.

London’s private members’ club, the Garrick Club, is another all-male club. Founded in 1831 by “a group of literary gentlemen”, it has served as a sanctuary for the great and good of London – as long as they happen to be men. Last year, Britain’s most senior woman judge, Baroness Hale of Richmond, said that the secretive club which many of her colleagues belonged to held women back from rising the ranks of the judiciary.

Critical wording

A synod vote in July was postponed after supporters of women bishops objected to the wording of the legislation, or measure, saying it undermined women bishops’ authority. It has since been reworked to say: “Any parish can request a male priest or bishop on the grounds of their theological conviction and these convictions must be respected.”

This final wording has been given the approval of the campaign group Women and the Church and the legislation has been backed by 42 out of the 44 Church of England dioceses.

However some traditionalists within the church – mainly Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals – are still opposed to women bishops, and believe the provision for non-approving parishes is not enough.

A letter to The Times newspaper, signed by 327 clergy, voiced “deep concern” over the introduction of women bishops. The letter said the draft measure “lead irrevocably to deep fractures appearing within the Church”.

About 60 traditionalist clergy, including five male bishops, and about 900 lay members have already switched to the Roman Catholic Church after Pope Benedict welcomed those who had become alienated by the prospect of the changes.