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Women bishops legislation wins Synod’s final approval

14 July 2014

by Madeleine Davies, Tim Wyatt, and Gavin Drake

Sam Atkins

After the vote: scenes of jubilation outside the debating chamber in York

After the vote: scenes of jubilation outside the debating chamber in York

The General Synod has given final approval to enabling women to become bishops in the Church of England. The draft legislation was carried with confident majorities in all three Houses. It can now go to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament.

The Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure needed two-thirds majorities. It was carried in the House of Bishops by 37 to 2, with 1 recorded abstention, and in the House of Clergy by 162 to 25, with 4 recorded abstentions. In the House of Laity, it was carried by 152 to 45 with 5 recorded abstentions. The Measure put before Synod in 2012 fell in the House of Laity by just 6 votes: 132 were in favour and 74 were against, with no abstentions.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, chairing the debates, asked that the votes be received "with restraint and sensitivity". But he ended the session by leading many members of the Synod in singing "We are marching in the light of God".

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, told the Synod that there were "many eyes and ears which are attentive to what we say and do". But he said that, while the Synod was aware of others, "we are here today to do what we believe, under God, to be right."

Hopes that the Measure would be carried were raised in the morning, as members of the laity who had helped to defeat the 2012 draft Measure stood up to explain why they would vote for the new package.

A speech that made a strong impact on the Synod was delivered by Adrian Vincent, a Guildford layman who had voted against the Measure in 2012 but intended to vote in favour, despite his theological conviction that the Church "does not have the right to make this change". The Measure had "just enough provision" to enable him to vote in favour, even though this involved "betraying what I believe and betraying those who trusted me. I hope that the promised commitment to mutual flourishing is not one that will run out of steam in a couple of years, but will continue for 50 and 100 years."

Christina Rees, a St Albans lay representative and member of WATCH, was visibly moved by Mr Vincent's contribution: "He has shown his loyalty as an Anglican, as a member of the Church of England, and as a responsible member of this body. He is making a sacrifice. It has absolutely stunned me."

The Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, thanked "those who stopped us in 2012", suggesting that what was now before Synod was an improvement. This had come at a price. Prudence Dailey of Oxford diocese spoke of the "bile, vitriol, and disapprobation" received at that time.

While traditionalists spoke of their intention of voting against the Measure on principle, they emphasised that the provision was much improved, and spoke of their desire to work alongside those with whom they disagreed.

Prebendary David Hould­ing, a London member of the Catholic Group, said: "When we argue among ourselves, we are losing sight of the purpose of religion to love God and serve others." Any division was "a scandal . . . We have to go on trusting, however much it may cost."

He was joined by the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, however, in reminding the Synod that it was going against the historic Catholic practice. Prebendary Houlding said that there would be an "ecumenical price to pay with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters: we are moving ahead without them."

Discontent was voiced by conservative Evangelicals with increasing force as the debate went on.

Susie Leafe from Truro diocese, the director of Reform, gave an unhappy account of her experience of the facilitated talks. She had been told by one facilitator that the "deepest concerns of conservative Evangelicals" were "off the table because I was wrong. The Church thought I was wrong. He thought I was wrong and I just had to suck it up."

Gerald O'Brien, of the Rochester laity, said that Evangelicals were being asked "to give their birthright away with not a lot in return". He questioned whether the House of Bishops had shown any evidence of their desire to deliver on promises about enabling traditionalists to flourish, noting that, despite plenty of opportunities, no cleric holding the conservative position on headship had been appointed a bishop.

As the debate drew to a close, the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to reassure those who could not accept women bishops that, if they put their trust in the package, they would not be disappointed. "The House of Bishops must act on our words," he said. "If this passes, we are going to deliver."

The last word went to John Spence of the Archbishops' Council, who spoke of the experience of losing his sight in the late 1980s.

"Things felt bleak. . . In those days, people who lost their eyesight lost their jobs. Even my group personnel director told me that I could not be promoted because I couldn't see. . . In the event, I went on to become managing director of Lloyds bank and moved that personnel manager into early retirement!"

His trust had been "fully repaid" and "given back to me in abundance." He urged that those who were wondering whether to abstain or even to support the vote consider that their trust, too, would be fully repaid.

"If you can place your trust when there is not yet evidence, your trust will not be misplaced. You will come to see that promises will be delivered."

He concluded: "The stronger the vote we can give today, the more confidently we can walk, hand in hand, to return this Church to numerical and spiritual growth and to return Christ to his rightful place at the centre of this country and its conscience."

The Synod was on its feet. Minutes later, the result was announced. Celebrations took place outside in front of numerous cameras.

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