Swift reaction follows rejection of women as bishops in England

‘Your church, not mine and not synod's,’ Canterbury tells women

By Mary Frances Schjonberg and Matthew Davies
Posted Nov 21, 2012

Canon Paula Gooder looks on alongside Rowan Williams (R), the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, after draft legislation introducing the first women bishops failed to receive final approval from the Church of England General Synod in London. Photo: REUTERS/Yui Mok

[Episcopal News Service] Members of the Church of England struggled with their emotions in the hours after its General Synod rejected by six votes a measure to allow women to become bishops.

It had been widely assumed that the oft-debated and amended measure — backed by both incoming and outgoing archbishops of Canterbury — would pass Nov. 20 during the second day of the church’s Nov. 19-21 group of sessions at Church House in Westminster. Archbishop of York John Sentamu said after the rejection that the measure would not proceed any further and cannot be considered again until a new synod is elected in 2015, unless a convincing case is presented by the leadership of synod and supported by its members.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who actively supported passage of the measure, told General Synod on Nov. 21 that the day after the vote “was always going to be a difficult day,” no matter the outcome. “The priority for today for all of us is to attend to one another … that is to give to one another the care that we need, and whatever else we do today, and think today and say today, I hope that that is what we will be able to offer one another,” he said.

Williams made his remarks after an emergency meeting of the Church of England’s House of Bishops early in the morning Nov. 21 for what he called “an informal discussion,” and he said that the synod leadership also met during the evening of Nov. 20.

The archbishop had also commented in a broadcast interview about two hours after the decision, saying that he felt “deep personal sadness” at the outcome.

However, he said, the vote “isn’t the end of the story, this is not an issue that is going to go away.”

“About three quarters of the total membership of synod voted for this, the dioceses voted for it, there is still the will for this to happen and so what the Church of England now has to do is find a way forward,” Williams said, noting that he understood that “so many people would like to be talking about something else and doing something else.”

The archbishop said he understood the “feeling of rejection and unhappiness and deep perhaps disillusion with the institutional church that many women may be feeling” and he urged those women “not to give up.”

“It is easy for me to say that, I don’t have to carry it in the same deeply personal way that these women particularly will but I still want to say it is your church, not mine and not synod’s,” he said.

The Rev. Rachel Weir, chairwoman of the advocacy group Women and the Church (WATCH), said: “This is a tragic day for the Church of England after so many years of debate and after all our attempts at compromise.”

Weir said bishops would need to act promptly to offer pastoral support in the coming weeks to women clergy and others who felt devastated by the decision.

The U.K.-based advocacy group Inclusive Church said it “deeply regrets” the decision. “We hope that church leaders will take urgent action to bring forward new legislation and to restore public confidence in the church,” the group said in a statement.

Dianna Gwilliams, chair of Inclusive Church said: “I’m personally disappointed … This debate is not about women. It is about the nature of our church and her leadership. I pray that as we continue to listen prayerfully to each other God will grant courage to all women and men who, together, are providing courageous leadership in our church.”

But many conservative groups welcomed synod’s decision, which had required a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of laity, clergy and bishops. The legislation received considerable support from the bishops and clergy, but failed by 6 votes in the House of Laity.

Forward in Faith, a traditionalist movement opposed to women’s ordination, said in a statement: “We are not surprised that the legislation failed to command the necessary majorities, as it has been apparent for some time that it lacked any consensus across the whole of the Church of England. As we have done for the last decade and more, Forward in Faith stands ready to offer a better way ahead, which might indeed command that wider consensus which this draft Measure so clearly lacked. We ask now for a period of prayer and reflection on the part of the whole church, following today’s events.”

And the Church Society, a group of conservative evangelicals in the Church of England, said it was “reflecting on and praying about” the outcome and would issue a complete statement later. “We are, however, pleased that synod has chosen not to pass the women bishops measure in its current form, which we believe would not have allowed the church to go forward together,” the website posting said.

A society member, Zoe Hamm, told BBC Radio Five Live that she and others voted against the measure because they felt that the legislation did not give “proper provision to those of us who hold a biblical view that men and women have to play a different role in the church.” (The interview with Hamm is here beginning at 1:43.)

The Rev. Rod Thomas, chair of Reform, a conservative network of individuals and churches within the Church of England, said in a statement: “We thank God that the Church of England has avoided making a big mistake which would have led to real division and a less inclusive church. The synod’s decision shows respect for the issues of conscience involved. It has avoided putting significant minorities who, as faithful Anglicans, seek to follow the Bible’s teaching, into an impossible position. We now have a real opportunity to build on the Church’s solid biblical foundations, reflecting together on the right way forward.”

Soon after the vote and ahead of the bishops’ emergency meeting, members of that house issued letters to their dioceses.

Bishop of Exeter Michael Langrish wrote that “many, right across the Church of England will … be feeling stunned. The mood among all synod members is subdued.”

Rejection of the measure, he said, “will be a cause of disappointment, anxiety and even anger among those who have campaigned hard for this development, and believe it to be of crucial importance for the effective ministry of the church in the service of the gospel,” while for others “the outcome of the vote will be welcome.”

“Many on both sides of the argument will look with concern and alarm at the prospect of this subject continuing to consume much time, energy and media attention for many years to come,” Langrish said, asking for prayer and “mutual forbearance” on the part of all diocesan members.

The church needs to work hard at producing a new measure that will assure those opposed to female bishops will be  “accounted by the church as fully loyal Anglicans.”

Bristol Bishop Mike Hill told his diocese that the rejection of the measure was “disastrous.”

“It will be very difficult for those of us who have supported the ordination of women bishops to process our disappointment in the days ahead,” he wrote. “My prayers are with the many people who are hurting, particularly women in our churches and those within and outside the church who are bemused and disillusioned by such a failure.”

Hill said he was amazed at the vote, given the agreement in principle to female bishops for years, including the fact that 42 of the 44 diocesan synods throughout England approved the legislation supporting female bishops.

“In a culture that celebrates democracy, it does seem strange that a clear minority has managed to influence the debate and elected representatives in such a way,” Hill wrote. “However, we will have to come to terms with where we now are and somehow learn to live together with the serious ramifications this failure to move forward creates.”

Diocese of Lincoln Bishop Christopher Lowson raised a concern voiced by many when he said “the proposal had the overwhelming support of most of the diocesan synods, and this raises very serious questions about the representation of General Synod, and calls for a broad review of how General Synod members are elected.”

Lowson said the Church of England “suffered a serious credibility problem while it worked on the legislation, and this is a set-back that could cement the church’s reputation as being outdated and out-of-touch.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Group in General Synod, which said before synod convened that it did not believe that it was “appropriate” for the Church of England to allow women to become bishops, called after the vote for “mediation and conciliation … so that new legislation can be framed to provide fairly for all members of the Church of England.”

According to a report by the BBC, the group said the measure failed because “because it was unclear and unfair in its provision for those who, in conscience, are unable to accept the ministry of women as bishops or priests.” The group called for the House of Bishops to reconvene talks that began in the summer among different groups, chaired by Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, who will become archbishop of Canterbury in March 2013.

The group’s claim that the measure was not clear was echoed by Bishop of Pontefract Tony Robinson (a bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Wakefield) and Bishop of Plymouth John Ford. The rejection “uncovered a stubborn unease, particularly among lay people, about the measure that was presented,” they said in a statement posted on the Forward in Faith UK website. The statement said it was issued on behalf of the bishops of the Society of St Wilfrid and St. Hilda.

“Acutely aware of the profound anguish that will now be felt by so many, we believe that it is wise at this point to refrain from analysis of the past or speculation about what the future might hold,” they wrote. “These are testing times for the Church of England. We pray that we who, between us, have held different opinions on this great matter will be able to find in each other the wisdom and humility we shall need to build a common future.”

The Twitter-sphere was ablaze immediately after the decision as subscribers to that social media outlet expressed their opinions in bursts of 140 characters or less. Many used the #synodfail hashtag to label their views.

“I have never felt less represented by synod,” tweeted the Rev. Caroline Symcox, who identifies herself as a second-year curate of a Buckinghamshire parish.

Another Church of England priest, the Rev. Rachel Mann, acknowledged the scope of the issue in her tweet, which appeared to have been the first to include #synodfail. “I am genuinely shattered,” she wrote. “Yes, there are more pressing issues in the world tonight – Gaza and so on – but that’s awful.”

Hannah, who identifies herself as an Exeter theology undergrad and Ottawa exchange student, tweeted: “I don’t want to be part of this church anymore.”

Chris Bryant, Labour Member of Parliament for Rhondda, tweeted that “I fear the CofE as a national church died today. And many of my friends’ hearts will have broken.”

In the United States, the Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, said in an e-mailed comment that the Church of England “confused ‘unity’ with ‘unison.’”

“The victims in this sad, fear-based decision are not the women whose vocations have once again been reduced to bargaining chips in a game of church politics or even the conservatives who feel marginalized because of their increasingly minority position,” she wrote. “The real victims are the tender souls yearning for spiritual community and for the good news of the gospel and hearing instead from the church yet another reason not to be a Christian.”

“And for all the challenges we face as the Episcopal Church, I have never been more grateful to be an Anglican on this side of the pond,” she added.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg and Matthew Davies are editors/reporters for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (32)

  1. Moputo Jones says:

    Perhaps the Episcopal Church needs to do an “extraprovincial intervention” in England, like the churches in Nigeria and Rwanda did to us!

  2. Hugh Magee says:

    Regarding Susan Russell’s comment above, don’t forget that there are some of us who are sane on this side of the pond (in Scotland): the Scottish Episcopal Church has authorised the ordination of women to the episcopate.

    As a kind of postscript I can report that our own bishop (Brechin) is currently in Swaziland, where he has been attending the ordination of +Ellinah Wamukoyah as Africa’s first woman bishop.

  3. The Rev. Mary S. Janda says:

    I am just curious as to where this fear comes from in having a bishop who is a woman. If women have been allowed to be ordained as deacons and priests, then why is the episcopacy out of reach for women who have served God, their communities of faith, and the Church of England just as ordained men have in the past? My thoughts and prayers go out to my sisters and brothers in England who have been hurt by this action. My thoughts and prayers also go out to my sisters and brothers in England who have voted no.

  4. Jim Lynch says:

    There is a missing link in the logic of this vote. A decision was made by the Church of England some years ago to ordain women priests. The key word is “ordain”. Once someone is admitted to the priesthood, then the next steps are (and not to minimize them) simply further ordinations. To say to women (or anyone else) well you can get on the first rung or two, but beyond that, forget it. There is no logic to that line of reasoning.
    Cooler heads will surely wake up and prevail in the Church of England!

    1. Anne Million says:

      Amen to Jim Lynch

    2. Karen Fern says:

      Does anyone think that the Church of England’s rejection of women bishops isn’t of a piece with the conservative (okay, reactionary) position on ordination of gay men and women both as priests and as bishops? The American church is way ahead on this but it has been a traumatic sequence of events for the American Episcopalians and the Episcopal church is fracturing over it. I would have thought that the church was beyond that kind of hysterical flapping of hands.

  5. patrick Bone says:

    We here in the USA are delighted. Hey, once you let a woman become a bishop, next, you’ll get a woman on the throne of England.

  6. Linda Gosling says:

    One wonders at times why we set rules in place for voting and then we disagree with the outcome.
    If a designated amount of votes are required for action, then the result of the vote is a final decision. Granted, it may not always be our preferred choice. We have been so distracted by matters which do not go along with our way of thinking that perhaps we need to focus more on Christ and spend our time realizing that the desperation of those who are in dire conditions need our attention and our focus in today’s world.

  7. Katharine Laughton says:

    This once again causes me to question membership in the Anglican Communion – our heritage stems from the Cof E and the glass ceiling imposed here makes no sense.

  8. R.T. Calcote says:

    Mr. Lynch’s comments are absolutely on the mark. However, logic has been a missing ingredient in the church for the past 2000 years. Who expects that to change?

  9. David Yarbrough says:

    Once again, the Anglican Communion (in the persona of the Church of England) tries to rewrite Scripture to suit the purposes of secular society.

    The first letter of Paul to Timothy, chapter 2, explicitly bars women from teaching (i.e., establishing and promoting the discipline and doctrine of the Church).

    The Church of England (along with TEC) chooses to ignore this scripture just as aggressivvely as it disregards Leviticus 18:22.

    As Christians we are charged to teach the Bible as given to the Saints, acknowledging and repenting of our own sins – not to pick and choose those teachings we’re comfortable with. To do otherwise puts the Church on a slippery slope toward destruction.

    1. Nancy Bracey says:

      The Bible…not to be taken literally as scripted, but literally in truth. And I do believe we pick and choose all the time…otherwise we would be sad shape…missing eyes, etc.

      1. Jesse Green says:

        I’ve heard it said that anyone who followed all 600 plus laws of Leviticus would rightfully be put in prison.

    2. Jim Lynch says:

      We need to remember what Jesus taught us about how we should view the Bible. Remember he said “on these two Commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets”. The meaning is clear: if you’re reading the Bible and you’re finding in it excuses to not love one another (respect, treat as equal, honor…), then you’re reading it wrong, and you need to reconsider your actions. Or at least don’t base your disrespect and discrimination on the Bible. Find another excuse.

    3. Jesse Green says:

      If you’re going to insist on following Leviticus you have to follow ALL of it, not just the parts that suit your particular biases. You know, like not shaving or cutting your hair. Or not planting your fields with different kinds of seed. Or not wearing clothing made of blended fabrics. Or not eating shellfish or pork products.

    4. Karen Fern says:

      NO, you are bound to teach the Bible as relevant to people living here and now rather than 2,000 years ago. No wonder you are the butts of jokes — and not even good jokes. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Well, following that, we are bound to look at the Bible as something living and breathing and not something that died ages ago and that is being used not as support but as a straitjacket. When I was in grad school for Theology, I was taught that the Bible is a document and that it had to be analyzed for content and meaning rather than being understood literally.

  10. Bob Van Keuren says:

    The Church of England will find that there are costs to any possible decision, including this one. There were costs when the Episcopal Church first ordained women as priests and later as bishops. But the ordination of women has clearly been what “the Spirit is saying to the Church” for many years, and the Spirit will not stop talking. When women finally serve as bishops in the C of E, they will be as much of a grace and an ornament there as they are in this church. I thank God for the ministry of holy women on all levels in the Episcopal Church, by which I have been blessed again and again and again.

    1. JohnCharles says:

      I doubt it was the Holy Spirit that was speaking to the Church years ago to ordain women, but most likely it was the spirit of politics or the spirit of the World. The Truth is not hinged to the majority (or minority) vote of the various Houses of the C of E.

  11. Julian Malakar says:

    As Church teaches to clear our anger before the sun set, now is the time to set an example by Church to show that what Church teaches practice the same. We all work for glory of God not for woman or man power, or to be first in the history. There is no winner or loser with outcome of the election, if we believe all men and women are holy.

  12. tom blair says:

    When people are dying the Middle East from religious intolerance, starving in Africa, and being murdered in Latin America by drug lords – a chuch with this much passion about women bishops and gay marriage is long past irrelevancy. The Episcopal Church needs to die – and so does the suicidal civilization that spawned it as its final whimper.

  13. Simone Kronae says:

    It is time for the C of E to awaken to the fact that the Bible is inerrant. There are very clear statements as to what a Bishop, Priest and Deacon are to be and how they are to live and what standards they are to meet. Under no circumstances are women allowed under these edicts into the role of clergy. There are appropriate places for women religious and that is as a NUN. There is plenty of work for them to do there as they have for thousands of years. They are unwanted and unwelcome in the male role of clergy. Women are NOT to teach men anything. They don’t have the capability, stability nor the blessing of God to take over male roles.
    Should a woman wish to do so it would be best she leave the C of E or Episcopal Church in the USA and take themselves to another church. One that is unbiblical and allows women in roles that are against all nature.
    There is a place for women and it is certainly not in the Clergy.

    1. Jesse Green says:

      The bible has been used to justify all sorts of wrongs – from slavery to discrimination to this sort of sexism. And now I see how it’s being used by someone so opposed to the idea of women having anything even anywhere close to equality with men that the mere mention of women’s equality sends that person off running to defend their manly territory. I know women who have far more capability and stability then men, and who have the blessings of God in their work. And if you want to counsel people to leave the church you need to take a hard look at your own relationship first with the church. Maybe everyone would be happier, yourself included, if you left.

    2. Karen Fern says:

      The Bible is NOT inerrant but is indeed a guide to living a life pleasing to God . It is not a straitjacket. It is an invitation.

  14. The decision is not over: the votes of 6 members of the House of Laity will not deter the final decision–which may yet occur even in this Synod. And if not, then certainly by the next Synod. Gynophobia is deeply instilled in our culture and–even when it appears to have been overcome, reappears in other places. “The mills of [God] grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.]

  15. David E. Pettengill, DD says:

    If we listen to the words of Jesus, “Father forgive them”, and we learn from the Bible about the wrestling of mankind with the reality of God, and we don’t worship the Bible, by providing an exactitude that is not there, we will relate in love to our fellow children of God. This process should provide for an environment for turning toward the inspiration and communication from God instead of worshiping the words that represent the understanding of people almost 2000 years ago.

    1. Karen Fern says:

      If you were in my living room right now, I would hug you in gratitude for that post.

  16. Michael McCoy, M.Div. says:

    Anglicanism has always stood the middle ground by being able to live within the tension created by using Tradition, Experience, and Reason in addition to Scripture as a source for its theology. We can cling to sacred cows of tradition despite what two-thousand years of reason and experience have told us about how to interpret Scripture or we can follow the Holy Spirit where it leads the Church to be today. The question I have regarding some of the negative comments above is: Are we called to follow Paul or Christ? Is, in this case, deutero-Paul the authority or is Jesus Christ the one whose teachings even the Pauline writers try to emulate? Because, what I know from the gospels and Acts is that Mary Magdalene, Mary, Martha, and many other women were part of Jesus’ entourage. Mary Magdelene is identified as a disciple which is the office that gave rise to the episcopos. In Acts, we know that Priscilla and Aquilla were missionaries of the gospel and that Lydia was the bishop of a house church. So despite Deutero-Paul’s admonition, which like all the pastoral letters is a letter meant to address a specific issue in a specific place and time, I choose to believe that it is God who calls us to our ministries, and Jesus’ own example of calling people of both sexes is the norm against which I will determine how I read the epistolary. Besides which, Deutero-Paul finds himself in conflict with Paul himself who wrote that “in Chris there is neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor Female…” (emphasis is mine). It is long past time to give up the Medieval Aristotelean view of male being pure and female being defiled. That was a power play on the Church’s part back then, which eliminated female clergy, (there were female clergy up to that point). We have some how enshrined this as dogma. It is not. It is based on unbiblical theology and it is time we called it out for what it is: sexism.

  17. Allan Reeder says:

    I agree with Archbishop Rowan remarks in the audio file that the Church of England has ‘some explaining to do’. His commitment to ‘gradual change’, demonstrated in this and earlier debates, has again been shown to be well-intentioned but misguided. The damage done by slow attempts at finding consensus and unity, will be looked back on as a mistake. Experiencing short-term pain, returns the body to unity sooner.

  18. Russ Graham says:

    95% of the dioceses in the CofE support the ordination of women bishops. And the measure fails in synod after years of endless discussion. Something is both sad and very wrong with this picture. Were all these women ordained to the priesthood – but not quite? In my simple belief system, a priest is a priest. The CofE needs to face a hard truth that none of really like to face. But as individuals, in our lives in the real world, we have to confront the fact that we just can’t have it both ways all the time. In the end, the CofE can’t have it both ways either. Just as we cannot serve God and mammon. 95% of the dioceses. I think the Spirit is speaking clearly to us. If we have the courage to listen.

  19. Shirley E. Viall says:

    “Glass ceilings, leave the church, the church should die and on and on go the complaints and criticism. Was the vote disappointing? Yes! Was it the end of the church, women’s leadership or the world? No! The struggle for rquality will and must go on and if we believe in God’s time it will come about. Some others of the responders have been so accurate in assessing the great needs facing the Church in the world today. Looking beyond the speck on the window glass to the view out the window we see the ravages of war and disease, hunger, poverty and death. There needs to be a focus on Christ’s call to the Church to serve those who have no voice as well as respecting equality among those who serve. My heart aches for those who have been disappointed by the vote but take heart dear ones. There is another vote coming.

    Shirley Viall

  20. Fr. Michael Neal says:

    It humorous to me to listen to all these progressive and humanistic views, I’m so thankful that God does’nt change, and neither does HIS word……………….still love you all….. 🙂

  21. Julian Malakar says:

    Those who believe the Bible need to be updated, please make no mistake to understand that we have been created by God, not accidentally evolved that human being have to be evolved with time and space and change biblical teaching as you think to be right. Source of our life is Christ Himself, not from the universe as many believe. God is eternal and His righteousness for human soul is unchanged.

    God knows everything about our pros and cons of having free will from 1st couple to our generation and generations to come in future. As such God provided us His righteousness thru The Bible after Resurrection of Christ, knowing all what free will could bring to destroy our souls, in course of time till end of the world. God’s righteousness is same as it was in the beginning, if we see thru His eyes, not thru our bodily eyes. For example, working for good works such as saving a child from a well or healing a blind as Christ did in Sabbath day, did not violet sanctity of Sabbath. Jew Leaders of Christ time knew it very well, but their motive to get Christ be killed was different than glory of God.

    At present time also, there are many political or Church leaders transformed by socio-cultural changes, try to bring about changes in the Holy Book as needed to fulfill their own interest in course of time rather than glory of God. And that creates conflicts, not the other way around. Earthly 2000 years is nothing to God’s time of infinity. As universal laws like gravitational force is unchanged throughout our universe, omnipotent God’s command is unchanged until Christ comes 2nd time. God gave us the Bible as standard not to sway by wind of contemporary world like now. We get grace by simple faith on the words of the Bible, not by he said/she said.

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