Disasters bring out the best in my profession. Sitting amid the
thrilled panic of the press room at the Synod after the vote had
gone down, I was filled with uncomplicated admiration for the
reporters, in their pulling together a clear narrative from a
complex story. Lizzy Davies, Ruth Gledhill, and Jerome Taylor were
the people I noticed running around, and all of them produced
quick, accurate, and graceful stories that made the front
Even the press office worked as it should, producing, within
minutes of the catastrophe, a bishop able and willing to speak
plain English, and soon after that, the statistics needed to stand
up its point that the Measure had been approved by very substantial
majorities - just not overwhelming enough.
Considering that no one in the press room really expected this
result, it was a glorious demonstration of how well newspapers can
rise to the occasion when there is some actual news to report. It's
when nothing happens that we turn to mischief.
The Times and The Guardian had almost
identical lead sentences: "The church was plunged into its gravest
crisis in decades after a vote that would have opened up the
episcopate to female clerics was lost by just six votes in the
house of laity. The house of bishops had voted massively in favour
of the legislation," Lizzy Davies wrote in The
The most remarkable comment - coherent and very angry - was the
Times leader: "Yesterday was a sad and shameful day for
the Church of England and therefore for the country of which it is
the established religion. It took 12 years of deliberation and
prayer for the Church to arrive at its decision on appointing women
as bishops, and yet it got that decision dreadfully wrong.
"What happened yesterday will be horribly familiar to leaders of
political parties that have lost their way. The process was
hijacked by a small but highly motivated group of fundamentalists
more interested in factional organisation, textual analysis and
strict orthodoxy than in the real world and how people live their
lives. When such people take over any body, it drifts away from
"The leadership of the Church failed in a fairly straightforward
job of political organisation and moral guidance. It has been
amateurish and shambolic. And sadly, this provides the epitaph for
the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury."
Canon Lucy Winkett in The Guardian was less angry and
more optimistic: "This vote has been a disaster for the Church of
England, one we will undoubtedly recover from, but one that further
perpetuates the commonly held view that our society is better off
without the contribution of the Christian church. Many like me will
stay, of course. Delivering ultimatums is a sorry way to go about a
ministry, but we will hang on by our fingertips, sad and furious in
equal measure, until the authority of women and men is accepted by
the church we love but, at times like this, find impossible to
The Mail leaped straight through to the next story.
"The next Archbishop of Canterbury has described the vote rejecting
the introduction of women bishops as a 'very grim day'.
"The Right Reverend Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, tweeted his
message after the General Synod narrowly failed last night to give
final approval to the legislation, plunging the Church of England
into crisis and recrimination.
"A 12-year push to allow women to move into the senior positions
ended in one minute of electronic voting - and was lost by the
narrowest of margins. Bishops and clergy had overwhelmingly backed
the move, but the Church's 'third house', made up of lay members,
fell just six votes short."
One point about all this is that it was astonishingly downbeat.
I mean, here was an opportunity for excitement and overstatement if
ever I saw one, yet, apart from a comment piece in The
Guardian that started: "I think I have just seen the Church of
England commit suicide," most people kept their sense of
Some of this may have been shock. A number of people who should
have known better could not take seriously the idea that, at the
end of all this drama, the Synod would do the dramatic thing. I was
certainly one of them, and I was quite wrong. Andreas Whittam
Smith, in The Independent, had an account of the debate
that was clearly leading up to a narrow victory for common sense,
and then had the last few sentences tacked on after the vote.
"At 6.10 p.m., after more than 100 speeches, almost half by
women, we were asked to vote. I voted in favour. But the two-thirds
majority was not attained. The motion was lost. Disaster."
It's in that kind of frozen reaction that history is recorded by