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For this relief. . .

21 November 2014

IT HAS, indeed, taken "a very, very long time" to open the door fully to women in the ordained ministry. The Archbishop of Canterbury might have been referring to the synodical process, which began in earnest in the 1970s, or to the centuries since the establishment of the Church in Jerusalem in which, influenced by St Paul, women were excluded from clerical posts - although not, of course, from ministry and leadership, often in senior and influential positions. It is dangerous to judge the past from the present day, and, however much we might wish the Church to challenge societal norms in the light of the gospel, it is the case that pressure for women's ordination did not start to build until after the suffragist movement had gained women the vote. This is not proof that the C of E was right to hold back, however. It is merely evidence that, as with other institutions, the Church was conditioned to equate the ordained ministry with secular authority, and authority with masculinity.

As for the immediate past, the C of E has furnished observers with an example of how a Church changes its mind - if anyone can bear to look. It has been a painful business. Disagreeing with others generally is, and both sides have too often sought to lessen that pain by behaving tribally, consorting with those who hold similar views and traducing those with whom they ought to have been in dialogue. Agreement came at last only when that dialogue was re-established. All can remember the low points in the process: the uncharitable July Synod in 2008, the misguided establishment of the Ordinariate in 2011; the intransigence that led to the shock vote in November 2012. But there have been high points, too: personal epiphanies, unlikely friendships, and, in the past year, the discovery of tolerance. The Measure promulged on Monday is a testament to a wider variety of people. Yes, to the patient women and the gracious traditionalists who kept returning to the table to explain their points of view, thus forging a mutual respect upon which the future agreement is founded. But also to the enthusiasts, those who argued their case with, at times, more heat than light, who held out against easy compromise, even when to do so led them dangerously close to unpleasantness. Now is a time to look with charity on all involved.

Could this result - approval for women bishops, accommodation for those who remain opposed in principle - have been achieved sooner? Undoubtedly. After all, other branches of the Anglican Communion - but by no means all - reached agreement long ago, though often at some cost. Governance in the Church of England tends to default to its more conservative individuals, and the process of confirming that a majority in the dioceses hold a particular view is a laborious one. But opinions did have to change, and this does not happen overnight. The C of E perhaps does not deserve to feel proud of itself, but it can feel relieved, and thankful.

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