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After the vote, what next?

23 November 2012

THE women-bishops legislation did not fall on Tuesday, as has been widely reported. In effect, it fell in October 2010. This was when the new General Synod was elected, after strenuous efforts by the lobbying groups to get their people into the Houses of Clergy and Laity ( News, 22 October 2010). When the results were announced, the Catholic Group on the General Synod and the conservative Evangelical organisation Reform calculated that 77 members of the House of Laity (35.46 per cent) would vote against it unless amended. Their calculations were almost spot on. As the Archbishop of Canterbury predicted on Wednesday, the General Synod itself is "under scrutiny" for its inability to reflect the views of parishioners as expressed through their closest representative bodies, the diocesan synods; and also for the General Synod's management of this issue: how did it come to walk into the chamber on Tuesday with such a vital matter balancing on a knife-edge?

Within ten minutes of the collapse of the legislation, the first expressions of dismay and shame were sent to this paper. The damage to the Church's standing with a largely uncomprehending public is serious, and its message to women potentially disastrous. It will require a great effort of will to return to the debate, especially given the desire of all to move on to more pressing social, political, and evangelistic matters. But the nature of unfinished business is that it blocks the agenda. The Church's work will be impaired until it finds a way to resolve this issue. The prospect of waiting until 2015 - and another contested election - is not to be borne, despite the evident danger of trotting round the same track.

Persuading the Archbishops and prolocutors to permit the re-introduction of legislation will be the easy part. More difficult, as we have said before, will be the task of lighting on a formula that has a greater chance of success. Tuesday's debate was full optimistic assurances that this could be done. History suggests otherwise. There are no new arguments to be found. What must change is the habit of demanding that concessions are made solely by the other side. The one straw at which to grasp is the pledge heard in the Synod from those opposed to women bishops that they will engage in discussions more willingly. There are also signs of this outside: for example, when someone emailed "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia" to her contacts, a recipient, another opponent, gently upbraided her: "I honestly do not take any joy in what some will call a 'victory'. . . Somehow, out of this mess - for that is what it is - there could well be a chance for both traditions to sit round a table and find some sort of agreement." This must be the urgent prayer of all.



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