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Angela Tilby: Memories of a momentous day in 1992

18 November 2022

Richard Watt

Supporters of the ordination of women celebrate the vote, outside Church House, Westminster, on 11 November 1992

Supporters of the ordination of women celebrate the vote, outside Church House, Westminster, on 11 November 1992

LAST Friday marked the 30th anniversary of the General Synod’s giving final approval to the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure. At the time, I was a television producer for the BBC, and I put up a proposal to the top brass that the debate was covered live.

The proposal was accepted, and so, on the day of the debate, I found myself sitting in a “scanner”, a TV studio in a van, watching as the proceedings went out live on BBC2. The mood was palpably tense, but courteous. Everyone felt the eye of history upon them. Outside there were crowds, bands, and banners. Catholic women came to give support.

The general view was that the outcome was too close to call. The Measure was expected to pass in the houses of bishops and clergy — it was the laity who were thought most likely to vote the Measure down. Some later admitted that they had arrived undecided, and some were genuinely persuaded, for and against, by the impassioned rhetoric of the moment. My own view at the time that the Measure would be narrowly defeated, and that there would be enormous anger and disappointment.

When the result was announced, I miscalculated the numbers (my maths was never that good) and thought that the Measure had failed. I remember sighing inwardly and thinking, “Well, that’s it, then, for another generation.” But then, to my spine-tingling surprise, delight, and, yes, I have to admit, a ghost of alarm at such a momentous change, it was announced that the Measure had passed.

Jubilation on many faces, silence and horror on others. The rest of my day was taken up with editing highlights of the debate and preparing a special late-evening summary with a discussion on the ecumenical implications. The following morning, it was front-page news, with the one tabloid headline proclaiming “The Church Says Yes to Vicars in Knickers.”

I was very touched when a senior BBC colleague, Jane Drabble, the former editor of Everyman, sent me a message of congratulations, not so much on my handling of the coverage but on the sheer fact of what had happened. She was not a churchgoer, but she knew that what had happened was significant for the nation as a whole, as it would be for me personally.

We later learnt that many bishops had cleared their diaries for the following week, expecting to be mopping up the tears of disappointed women. Instead, they found themselves absorbing the anger of those who now felt that they must leave the Church or seek protection for those who could not accept the new reality.

There has been much talk about how the current arrangements continue to discriminate against women. I understand this, but I think that some perspective is in order. It is only 30 years — not much in the eye of eternity.

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