Women Bishops At Last

This months reflection by Simon is on the subject of women Bishops

On Monday 14th July, the General Synod of the Church of England voted at last to approve legislation to permit women to be bishops. As someone who has been part of the campaign and the journey towards this historic move, I thought readers might appreciate some insight into the debate and what led to such a shift in opinion since the disastrous failure of November 2012.

Facilitated Conversation & ‘Good Disagreement’:

Following the 2012 disaster, the new  Archbishop,  Justin  Welby,  decided  to  take  a  radically  different  approach, involving professional reconciliation experts. The whole Synod participated in such ‘facilitated  conversations’  in  July  2013,  following  some  challenging  discussions between  supporters  and  opponents  in  the  first  half  of  that  year.  Opponents  in particular felt that their concerns were being heard and that trust was being built. I  remember a key moment in the process took place late at night in the Synod bar, where  a  handful  of  us  were  talking  things  through  and  a  bishop  present  had  a ‘lightbulb’  moment!  Instead  of  the  usual  process  of  legislating,  where  supporters would  ‘steer’  the  business  through  the  Synod,  this  so-called  ‘Steering  Committee’ would  consist  of  both  supporters  and  opponents  of  women  bishops.  This  was sufficient to give a sense of confidence among opponents that their concerns were being heard and that they had an honoured place in the future of the Church.

The  Bishops  and  the  Five  Principles

As  the  legislation  was  being  drafted  the House  of  Bishops  met  to  consider  how  it  would  implement  any  change.  Everyone needed clarity that their position had been heard and their place safeguarded. The House  emerged  with  five  principles,  to  which  the  whole  church  would  need  to  be committed if the legislation was to succeed. It was not a matter of ‘pick and choose’: everyone had to accept all five.

These five principles are set out below:

  1. Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the  Church  of  England  is  fully  and  unequivocally  committed  to  all  orders  of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those  whom  it  has  duly  ordained  and  appointed  to  office  are  the  true  and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;
  2. Anyone  who  ministers  within  the  Church  of  England  must  be  prepared  to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;
  3. Since  it  continues  to  share  the  historic  episcopate  with  other  Churches, including  the  Roman  Catholic  Church,  the  Orthodox  Church  and  those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests  or  bishops,  the  Church  of  England  acknowledges  that  its  own  clear decision  on  ministry  and  gender  is  set  within  a  broader  process  of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;
  4. Since  those  within  the  Church  of  England  who,  on  grounds  of  theological conviction,  are  unable  to  receive  the  ministry  of  women  bishops  or  priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and
  5. Pastoral  and  sacramental  provision  for  the  minority  within  the  Church  of England  will  be  made  without  specifying  a  limit  of  time  and  in  a  way  that maintains  the  highest  possible  degree  of  communion  and  contributes  to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

The effect of these five principles enabled simple legislation to be brought back to the  Synod  which,  on  paper,  gave  less  to  ‘traditionalists’  than  they  had  had  in November 2012, but which (by virtue of the trust generated), enabled them to feel with greater confidence that their position was secure.

The  Synod  Debate

Following  universal  acceptance  by  the  42  dioceses  of  the Church  of  England,  the  legislation  returned  to  Synod  two  weeks  ago.  From  the
outset  the  tone  of  the  debate  was  different:  there  was  a  gracious  forbearance  in almost all the speeches, with but a few ‘wrong notes’ from those less able to sense the  mood.  Key  speeches  were  made  by  a  significant  number  of  Synod  members who,  while  supportive  of  women  bishops  in  principle,  had  voted  against  in  2012.
Each of them who spoke gave moving speeches about why they would either now abstain or vote in favour. This was met with speeches by passionate supporters who recognised in opponents those with whom they wanted to, and needed to, work with moving  forward.  One  opponent  indicated  that  he  would  ‘betray  his  principles’  and vote in favour for the sake of church unity.
As  the  day  went  on  the  final  speeches  were  the  most  moving. The Archbishop  of Canterbury  spoke  of  his  commitment  to  the  flourishing  of  all  and  his  longing  for women in the episcopate. But the most moving speech of all came from Canon John Spence,  a  former  banker  and  now  head  of  the  Church  of  England’s  Finance Committee. John went blind in his thirties and spoke of how he had learned to trust others  just  as  they  had  adapted  to  his  new  situation.  Synod  rose  to  its  feet  at  his
peroration, many (including me) with tears flowing freely. John’s speech is included in full in a separate article.
In the end, the vote was calm and very clear. Over 75% in each House (Bishops: 97%,  Clergy:  84%,  Laity  76%)  voted  to  pass  the  Measure.  Once  it  has  cleared Parliament and it becomes church law after the November Synod, we will have our first woman bishop in early 2015.
There  was  no  triumph  at  the  end,  only  relief,  quiet  joy  and  modest  sips  of  cheap champagne. The biggest cheer came while many of us watched the 6pm BBC News and heard Mark Easton sum up the debate in a way we could have only prayed for:  “perhaps  this  decision  says  something  about  the  way  we  in  Britain  can  learn  to disagree well.”

We couldn’t have asked for more. Thanks be to God.