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The day they said ‘yes’

23 November 2012

Twenty years ago this month, the General Synod voted in favour of the ordination of women. Margaret Duggan covered the debate for the Church Times, and reflects on what happened


All those in favour: opposing sides assemble outside Church House

All those in favour: opposing sides assemble outside Church House

JUST a single gasp broke the silence in the emotion-filled Assembly Hall, as the results of the final votes to ordain women as priests were read out: House of Bishops: 39 to 13; House of Clergy: 176 to 74; House of Laity: 169 to 82. Quick mental arithmetic ascertained that, while there were clear two-thirds majorities in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, the vote had succeeded in the Laity by a narrow two votes.

There was silence in the press gallery, too. My Church Times colleague Betty Saunders and I had been reporting that 1992 debate between us, both with strong feeling on opposite sides of the argument, just as we had done all previous debates. Our friendship endured, but, at that moment, it was impossible to think of anything to say to each other.

Meanwhile, exhausted members started to stream out of the hall, women mostly to break the news to the MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women) members who had been gathering on the terrace, together with their male supporters, and members of the Roman Catholic group campaigning for the ordination of women. There was hugging, laughter, and enormous relief that, after so many years, all they had worked for had come to pass.

The MOW secretary in London, Elizabeth Witts, remembers it vividly. She, like others, had spent an hour praying at St Edward the Confessor's shrine in Westminster Abbey, earlier in the afternoon.

She watched the happy women emerge from Church House, "and men coming out weeping". Suddenly the women - and the men with them - started singing the Jubilate, and "we went on singing it for a whole hour, until we were absolutely exhausted."

INSIDE Church House, the Revd Jenny Welsh was in an overflow room for those unable to get into the packed public gallery, and where they could watch the debate on closed circuit television. She had been ordained priest in Canada four years previously, and, after serving her title, had married an English priest, and was working as an assistant prison chaplain - licensed as a deacon - in Lincoln.

An attempt in the Synod to allow women priests from overseas to officiate in England had been defeated in 1986, and she had been told that she could not exercise her priesthood until the first women in the diocese in which she worked were priested.

She had come to London to see the debate, and had stood on the steps as people arrived. She remembers that a great cheer was raised for Dr Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as a champion of the women's cause.

In the overflow room, she says, she found herself sitting next to a priest in black, who looked increasingly unhappy, but she joined in the excited rejoicing that broke out among the majority of those in the room, before heading home to her husband and new baby.

She knew, she says, that "a huge hurdle had been overcome, but nothing much would happen for a while." She would have to wait as long as the English candidates - up to two years - before she could once again celebrate the sacrament.

What of those who felt they had been defeated? James Cheeseman, still today a member of the Catholic Group, was "clearly surprised and disappointed, because we didn't think it would go through". His reaction, he says, was to try and work out what it would mean. He would go to Walsingham to decide what to do. He eventually decided to carry on in the Church of England, remembering that it was only part of the Anglican Communion, where there were many others who thought like him.

OTHERS were said to have gone home "broken-hearted", and the Principal of St Stephen's House, Oxford, the Revd Edwin Barnes (later to join the Roman Catholic Church), said that he had returned to the college to find many of his students in tears.

Some, like the Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, were already talking of joining the Roman Catholics. The next week, Dr Leonard (he did eventually go to Rome) published a proposal for a relationship with the RC Church not unlike the present Ordinariate - a proposal that was rapidly shot down as "exceedingly unhelpful" by the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd Mark Santer, who was co-chairman of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.

Bishop Santer had, during the debate, already made his position clear, despite his close working relationship and friendship with the RC members of ARCIC. "I used to believe that it was possible for further consensus to develop. I have come to see that continued delay is in fact debilitating the life of the Church."

Most of those in the groups who had campaigned against the legislation - the Association for the Apostolic Ministry, Women Against the Ordination of Women, Cost of Conscience, the Society of the Holy Cross, and the Catholic League - but who did not want to leave the Church of England, were left deeply unhappy, but decided to wait and see how the provisions made for them would work out. Over the next few days, a large number combined to become Forward in Faith.

The General Synod had been debating women's ordination since 1972, although as far back as 1967 the issue of women in holy orders had been raised in the Synod's precursor, the Church Assembly. In 1975, the Synod had resolved that there were "no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood", although nothing further was to be done about it at that time. Legislation finally started in 1984, and the momentum had been gathering ever since.

LOOKING back, as one who reported them all from the press gallery, I have a sense of there having been innumerable debates. I had started from a position of vague dislike of the idea of women priests, simply because the couple of women I knew who wanted to be ordained happened to be authoritarian, headmistressy types, of whom I had a horror.

But, as I listened, and heard the misogyny in all its nastiness from so many opponents, and experienced it at close quarters in the tea room and elsewhere, I found myself more and more drawn to the other side, where far more generosity was to be found.

Fairly soon, I was convinced by that generosity, both on the part of those who recognised women as equal before God, and of the women who acknowledged the pain being caused to opponents who did not themselves acknowledge the women's pain. Their cause, I came to believe, was where the Jesus of history would have been in the 20th century, and where Christ was today.

The final debate in 1992 had been altogether more moderate and charitable than nearly all that had gone before. By and large, it was intensely theological. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, was in the chair on the morning of 11 November, and told the Synod that 200 members had put in a request to speak.

The debate was opened by Bishop Michael Adie of Guildford, who said that many on both sides of the debate would have preferred a one-clause measure that simply admitted women to the priesthood, but the determination to hold the Church together had led to the provisions for those who could not agree, so that all would have "a respected and secure place in the Church".

Those provisions had been adjusted by the Synod until they were "as good as we corporately can make them. Furthermore, they are secure, because they cannot be withdrawn or altered except by another Meaure."

IT WAS the Archdeacon of Leicester, the Ven. David Silk, who led the opposition. He had barely started before the fire alarm rang and the chairman ordered the evacuation of the whole Synod. (Members, many of whom remembered former such evacuations for IRA bomb scares, were later told that there had been a small fire in the Vitello d'Oro restaurant, then in the basement of Church House.)

When he resumed, he reminded the Synod that the debate was about the legislation in which "the invariable practice of 2000 years is terminated in a single sub-clause." Those who had deep reservations on the scriptural grounds of headship, and those whose reservations were grounded in revelation, were "flatly told that their reservations are without foundation".

He talked about theological confusion, and pastoral mayhem, and "nonsense being made of the office of bishop", because the Measure - saying that nothing in it should "make it lawful for a woman to be consecrated to the office of bishop" - was driving a wedge between the episcopate and presbyterate.

Re-reading the debate, I realise that the headship argument by the Evangelicals featured a good deal more in the debate than I remembered, and led to a great deal of biblical exegesis and theology.

The Catholic Anglicans talked of fundamental changes, and separation from the rest of Christendom, meaning the Roman and Orthodox Churches (those of the Reformation hardly got a mention). The women, such as the Revd June Osborne, now Dean of Salisbury, spoke of their growing conviction of their call to the priesthood.

It was all moderately done, with the exception of one woman, Dorothy Chatterley, who, after a powerful speech in support of women by Archbishop Carey, promised mistrust, marginalisation, and mayhem, should the legislation go through.

Twenty years on, it does not feel like that, although women clergy friends have told me that they do still suffer insult and discrimination in some quarters. What difference women bishops might make has yet to be seen.


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