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:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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
- 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.