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From the archive: The day the Church said yes to women

13 November 2017

On Saturday, it was 25 years since the General Synod voted in favour of women priests. Margaret Duggan viewed the debate from the gallery. This article was originally published in the Church Times on 8 November 2002, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the vote


Jubilation: supporters of the ordination of women celebrate the vote, outside Church House, Westminster, on 11 November 1992

Jubilation: supporters of the ordination of women celebrate the vote, outside Church House, Westminster, on 11 November 1992

IT IS commonly said that the final vote to ordain women to the priesthood was passed by just two votes in the House of Laity. Those votes were needed to gain the required two-thirds majority in each House.

Had the result depended on a simple vote across the whole General Synod, the result would have been 384 to 169 (69 per cent) in favour of women priests. In whatever way the figures are juggled (and there was a lot of juggling in the minutes after the vote), the majority in favour of women’s ordination was a large one.

11 November 1992 was a day of tension. The public gallery as well as the press gallery of the assembly hall in Church House had been packed from the moment the doors opened, and the expectant crowd overflowed in one of the other halls with a television screen. The debate started at 10 a.m. under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, and was intended to go on until 4.30.

It was opened with a conciliatory speech by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Michael Adie, assuring the Synod that the bishops would “work strenuously to keep space and room in every ministry” for those who could not agree. He was followed by a leading opponent of women priests, Archdeacon David Silk, later to become Bishop of Ballarat, in Australia, who was interrupted almost as soon as he had started speaking. A fire alarm rang out (caused, the Synod was told later, by a small fire in the restaurant in the basement of Church House), and the whole of the Synod had to be evacuated into Dean’s Yard. The frustration was immense, but it had the effect of-slightly lowering the temperature of the debate.

As always in Synod, the big guns came out early on. Dr Christina Baxter said that during the previous four months she had “reviewed all the arguments from my Evangelical roots and I have stood on the edge of an abyss”. She had now decided that the time was right to vote for women priests.

Dr David Hope, then Bishop of London, now Archbishop of York, spoke with “considerable reluctance and real anguish” against the motion, saying that “in all honesty I am very open to the fact that I may well be wrong”. Dr Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, acknowledged the pain some would inevitably feel, but hoped “with all my heart that Synod will affirm the place of women in the priesthood”.

Many powerful arguments followed, the chairman even-handedly inviting first one side then the other to speak. As more than 200 members had put their names down to take part, speeches were limited to five minutes from half-way through the morning. Memorable was Bishop Mark Santer of Birmingham who, despite his close relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as co-chairman of ARCIC, said he had come to see that delaying the ordination of women was “debilitating to the life of the Church”. His fellow episcopal theologian, Bishop Stephen Sykes of Ely, agreed that the proposition was “fully consistent with the faith of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church”.

On the other side, the Rt Revd Alec Graham, Bishop of Newcastle, found the arguments “not proven”; and John Gummer MP “came out all guns blazing”, according to one witness, deploring that the Church should waste time on this issue instead of winning souls for Christ. (He has since become a Roman Catholic.)

The Revd Pete Broadbent, now Bishop of Willesden, was another Evangelical who admitted he had changed his mind from being “strongly against” the ordination of women to now being an advocate for it. On the Evangelical argument about “headship”, he raised a rare laugh by asking married men in the Synod when they had last exercised headship in their relationship. “If it means nothing in marriage, it means very little in the Church.”

The Synod adjourned for lunch, and afterwards Dr Carey took the chair. It was the Sheffield lawyer,  Professor David McClean, who resumed the batting, insisting that legal rights on both sides would be protected. His own diocesan bishop, the Rt Revd David Lunn, disagreed with him, declaring that if the legislation was passed “the Church of England would be inexorably and fatally weakened.”

There were still plenty of members of considerable weight in the Synod being called to speak, not least Dr Habgood, who appealed for generosity, Bishop David Jenkins of Durham, who characteristically pointed out it was “Anglican to leave loose ends and questions yet to be answered”, and the Revd John Broadhurst, now Bishop of Fulham, who said he could not compromise with tradition: otherwise “I risk my soul.”

Speeches were eventually limited to three minutes, and by late afternoon everyone was exhausted. In an unprecedented gesture, Archdeacon Silk as well as Bishop Adie was allowed to reply to the debate.

Then the vote was called for, and Dr Carey asked everyone to stand in silence and prayer before the division by Houses, Members were also asked to receive the result in silence. The tension was unbearable. Many members were close to tears as they streamed out through the lobbies. Few who were present will forget the pain of waiting for the figures: Bishops 39-13; Clergy 176- 74; Laity 169-82.

Synod lumbered on without pause, moving straight to the votes on the ensuing legislation. Meanwhile the public gallery emptied and word reached the crowd of women, Roman Catholic as well as Anglican, who had been waiting outside in Dean’s Yard. As the news sank in, they hugged and kissed and burst into Jubilate Deo.

“The relief was like a tidal wave engulfing us,” remembers one. They went on singing for the next two hours — “Couldn’t stop” — until every member had left the Synod. Those in sympathy were equally joyful; but those who felt defeated “came out distraught; even some of the men were in tears”. The next day many did not reappear. By the time the General Synod next met, they had taken the decision to leave the Church of England.


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