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Synod delivers a confident vote for women bishops

18 July 2014


Into the new age: women priests react after the vote, on Tuesday

Into the new age: women priests react after the vote, on Tuesday

AS IF they needed reminding, given the cameras trained on them, General Synod members were told on Monday morning that there were "many eyes and ears which are attentive to what we say and do".

Eighteen months after the collapse of the previous women-bishops draft Measure, a new creation was awaiting approval, gestated during hours of negotiations led by a diplomat with reconciliation in Northern Ireland under his belt. There was a mood of trepidation.

Introducing the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, was clear: "While we may be aware of those others, we are here today to do what we believe under God to be right."

Five hours later, the results were in. By confident majorities in all houses, the Synod had decided that the time was right to open the episcopate to women. The next day's front pages would show women laughing, with champagne in hand, and one crying with joy.

The Measure 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 2012 Measure had fallen in the House of Laity by 6 votes: on that day 74 had voted against.

The Archbishop of York, who chaired the debate, asking that the votes be received "with restraint and sensitivity", although two women in the public gallery couldn't resist cheering. After a stern look in their direction, Dr Sentamu continued with the legal proceedings; but he ended the session by leading the Synod in the song "We are marching in the light of God".

Archbishop Welby said afterwards that he was "delighted" with the result. "Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases disagreeing. . . Today is a time of blessing and gift from God and thus of generosity. It is not winner take all, but, in love, a time for the family to move on together."

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard suggested that, "although it felt catastrophic to many of us at the time, it seems we were saved from ourselves when the vote went down in 2012, because in this new legislation we have something better and stronger."

The Vicar of St Mary Magdalene's Belmont, and Pittington, the Revd Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, while overjoyed with the result, was reluctant to agree with this interpretation.

"It's true that what we have got now is better, but I . . . find it hard to see it as a good thing that it did not pass two years ago," she said. She knew of people who had "quietly slipped away" because of the Church's position on women.

The congratulations poured in. Hours before announcing his own pro-women reshuffle, the Prime Minister hailed it as a "a great day for the Church and for equality".

Even the statements issued by traditionalists groups were conciliatory.

The Bishop of Pontefract, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, who chairs the Council of Bishops which advises Forward in Faith, said: "We deeply regret the further obstacle that this decision places in the path to the full, visible unity of the whole Church". But, he added, the provisions in the Measure gave the group "confidence in our future as Catholics who are called to live out our Christian vocation in the Church of England."

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Revd Bernard Longley, who chairs the Department for Dialogue and Unity of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, also referred to the vote as an "obstacle"; but he emphasised a commitment to "seeking deeper mutual understanding and practical cooperation wherever possible".

In a press conference on the floor of the chamber, shortly after the vote, Archbishop Welby suggested that the vote would not have a huge impact on ecumenical relations.

"They [Roman Catholics] are not going to wake up tomorrow morning and say 'Oh my goodness! Have you seen what the Church of England has done?'" he said. On Monday, the Rt Revd Mgr Keith Newton, Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, set up by Pope Benedict for former Anglicans, invited "all who are interested" to attend an "exploration day" for those "whom God may be calling to join it".

But speeches at the General Synod did not suggest an appetite for such a move among traditionalist members, who had fought for provision precisely to stay within the Church.

"This issue has entombed us for too long," said the Archdeacon of Chichester, the Revd Douglas McKittrick. "We are disciples for Christ. We have the gospel to declare to the nation, and we need to move on."

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 one after another to explain why they would vote for the new package. At an early stage, the chair of the House of Laity, Dr Philip Giddings, whose No vote in 2012 prompted an attempt to remove him from office, announced his intention to vote in favour.

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", and that he would be "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."

He was praised by Christina Rees, who used to chair the campaigning group WATCH: "He has shown his loyalty as an Anglican. . . He is making a sacrifice. It has absolutely stunned me."

The one group that remained unhappy represented the conservative Evangelicals. Gerald O'Brien, of the Rochester laity, said that they 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 nominated for a bishopric.

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."

But it was the vision painted by John Spence, a member of the Archbishops' Council, who described losing his sight in the late 1980s, that moved many members as the debate drew to a close.

"Things felt bleak. . . In those days, people who lost their eyesight lost their jobs," he explained. "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 those who were wondering whether to abstain or even to support the vote to believe 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. . .

"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.

Leader comment

Full report of the debate


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