[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.