[Episcopal News Service] The Church of England made history July 14 when its General Synod, meeting in York, approved legislation to enable women to serve as bishops, possibly by 2015.
The vote ends centuries of tradition and follows more than a decade of often-emotional debate accompanied by various stages of legislative action.
Before the vote, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said to pass the legislation “is to commit ourselves to an adventure in faith and hope. Like all adventures it carries danger [and] uncertainties and for success requires perseverance, integrity and courage.”
Welby said the legislation “allows us to move forward together, all of us as faithful Anglicans and all of us committed to each other flourishing in the life of the church … Today we can start on a challenging and adventurous journey to embrace a radical new way to be the church … Jesus invites us to radical belonging to one another so that all the world will know that we are his disciples.”
One synod member read out a message from Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu. “I’m thrilled to hope that our mother church, the Church of England, will do the right thing today … to allow women to become bishops as we have in Swaziland and in Cape Town,” said Tutu. “Wow, you are in for a great surprise and treat should you do this. Your church will be enriched no end … Just look at what we have denied ourselves. God be praised. Yippee.”
On hearing the news, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female primate in the Anglican Communion, said: “I am overjoyed for the Church of England as it has finally consented to the ordination and consecration of women as bishops. I believe that the inclusion of women in this order will bring new gifts and possibilities for its partnership in God’s mission in England. This represents one more step in the long transformation of church and society toward the Reign of God.”
The legislation, called a measure, affirms the church’s commitment to “enabling women, as well as men, to be consecrated to the office of bishop if they otherwise satisfy the requirements of Canon Law as to the persons who may be consecrated as bishops.”
The vote comes almost 20 months after the synod narrowly rejected similar, but more complex, legislation to accept women as bishops. While passed by the bishops and clergy, that November 2012 vote failed in the House of Laity by six votes. Various groups, including a steering committee and the House of Bishops, have since worked towards advancing as efficiently as possible a legislative package that could be supported by the required two-thirds majority in all three houses of laity, clergy and bishops.
The General Synod gave its assent to the new legislation when it last met in February. Since then, through an abbreviated process, a majority of the church’s 44 dioceses have given their assent to the legislation, a step required whenever synod is proposing a change to church and U.K. law.
The legislation passed on July 14 with 37 votes for, 2 against and 1 abstention in the House of Bishops; 162 votes for, 25 against and 4 abstentions in the House of Clergy; and 152 votes for, 45 against and 5 abstentions in the House of Laity.
The measure now requires approval by the U.K. Parliament and royal assent, because the legislation effectively changes English law. (The Church of England is an officially established Christian church with Queen Elizabeth II as its supreme governor.) Following the failure of the previous legislation, during parliamentary debate some U.K. politicians bemoaned the church’s decision and its drawn-out journey towards acceptance of women bishops. It is expected that the U.K. Parliament will take up the matter before the end of 2014, which would mean the first female bishop could be appointed in 2015.
Meanwhile, an Amending Canon, which was passed by synod without debate, will change the gender-specific language in the church’s legal and formal documents.
Some of synod’s former opponents of the legislation signaled their willingness to commit to the new legislative package, in part due to a declaration from the House of Bishops outlining procedures for handling grievances, mediation and resolving disputes arising from those who are unable to accept the new legislation or the ministry of women bishops.
The declaration lists five guiding principles acknowledging that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter; accepting that there will be those who disagree with the decision; and committing to maintaining the highest degree of communion through “pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority.”
Back in February, Bishop James Langstaff of Rochester, who chaired the steering committee that produced the new legislative package, raised up the five principles as the linchpin of the declaration. “If we stick with those then we will find that we will behave with each other as we should,” he said.
Before the July 11 debate, Langstaff said, “There are many eyes and ears that are attentive to what we do … The wider church, both Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners, also look on. While we may properly be aware of those others we are here today to do what we believe through God is right.”
Langstaff said he believes that this is the moment to vote yes but that he fully recognizes and respects that there will be those who in good conscience cannot vote in favor. “The Church of England has spoken very clearly through the voting of our diocesan synods … We have a responsibility to be guided by what we assess to be the settled view” of the overwhelming majority in the church.”
Theologian and scholar Paula Gooder, a lay synod member from the Diocese of Birmingham and also a member of the women bishop’s steering committee, urged synod to vote in favor of the legislation, but warned that changing law can only do so much. “Trust and flourishing are down to us…and that can only happen through how we live our own lives,” she said. “Take upon yourselves that great challenge…to live out the life of reconciliation in all that we say and do.”
Tom Sutcliffe of the Diocese of Southwark voted against the legislation in 2012 because he felt it would have divided the church. He told synod on July 14 that he would be voting in favor of the measure today because he believes it makes adequate provisions for those who cannot accept women as bishops. “We must act on our conviction that the church needs the gifts of women bishops,” he said, adding that he is “immensely optimistic” about the future.
Bishop John Goddard of Burnley said he would be voting against the legislation, but acknowledged that if the measure passes he would commit to working with those who disagree with him. “I respect your ‘yes’ just as I hope you respect my ‘no’,” he said. “So we live in disagreement and we look forward … to working in a way in which we participate in the Lordship of Christ, in his grace together and above all in engaging in mission together. By engaging in mission together we will be transformed.”
Jane Patterson, a lay member from the Diocese of Sheffield, also said she’d be voting against the measure. However, she noted that the guiding principles give some grounds for hope and “I commit to serving [God] in his church whatever the result today.”
Prudence Dailey of the Diocese of Oxford, who in November 2012 voted against the measure, told synod that today she would be abstaining because, although “we’ve arrived at a much better point” with the current legislation, she still struggles with the principle of women being bishops.
The news comes as the U.S.-based Episcopal Church prepares to celebrate 40 years since the first women were ordained as priests, albeit irregularly, on July 29, 1974.
The Episcopal Church passed legislation to enable women to become priests and bishops in 1976, although it would be another 13 years before the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris was consecrated as suffragan bishop of Massachusetts, becoming the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop.
History of women’s ordained ministry in the Church of England
The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women first were ordained to the diaconate. More than 5,000 women have been ordained as priests in England since 1994 and today they represent nearly 40 percent of all clergy.
In July 2005, 13 years after agreeing to ordain female priests, the General Synod began its steady course toward allowing them to become bishops when it passed a motion to remove the legal obstacles to ordaining women as bishops.
In July 2006, the synod called for the practical and legislative arrangements of admitting women to the episcopate to be explored. It also called for the formation of a legislative drafting group to prepare a draft measure and amending canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles.
At its July 2008 group of sessions, synod agreed that it was the “wish of its majority … for women to be admitted to the episcopate” and affirmed that “special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests.”
General Synod voted in February 2009 to send a draft measure on women becoming bishops to a revision committee so it could rework the legislation.
The revision committee met 16 times beginning in May 2009 and considered 114 submissions from synod members and a further 183 submissions from others. In May 2010, the committee published a 142-page report, which offered a detailed analysis of the draft legislation in time for the July 2010 synod debate and vote.
The July 2010 synod backed legislation that paved the way for women to become bishops and referred the measure to diocesan synods for their consideration. A majority of diocesan synods needed to approve the measure for it to return to General Synod.
From July 2010 to February 2012, 42 of the 44 diocesan synods throughout England approved the legislation supporting female bishops.
The February 2012 General Synod rejected a bid to provide greater concessions for those opposed to female bishops. Those concessions essentially were an amendment to the legislation that would have enabled two bishops to exercise episcopal functions within the same jurisdiction by way of “co-ordinating” their ministries.
The Anglican Communion’s path to women’s ordination
The long path towards accepting women’s ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference called (via Resolutions 47-52) for the diaconate of women to be restored “formally and canonically,” adding that it should be recognized throughout the communion.
The first female priest in the communion, the Rev. Li Tim-Oi, was ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. Due to outside pressure, she resigned her license, but not her holy orders, following World War II. In 1971, the Rev. Jane Hwang and the Rev. Joyce Bennett were ordained priests in the Diocese of Hong Kong, though their ministries were not recognized in many parts of the Anglican Communion.
In 1974, there was the “irregular” ordination of 11 women in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which officially authorized women’s priestly ordination two years later.
Bishop Barbara Harris, now retired, was elected bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in 1988 and became the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop after her consecration and ordination in 1989.
The Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson made history in 1989 when she was elected bishop of the Diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand, and became the first woman to serve as a diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion.
The Rt. Rev. Mary Adelia McLeod, who was ordained a priest in 1980, was ordained and consecrated in 1993 as bishop of the Diocese of Vermont, becoming the first female diocesan bishop in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. She retired in 2001.
The Rt. Rev. Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera became the first female Anglican bishop in Latin America when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Church of Cuba in June 2007.
The Rev. Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya on Nov. 17, 2012 was ordained as bishop of Swaziland and became the first female bishop in any of the 12 Anglican provinces in Africa.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, previously bishop of Nevada, became the Anglican Communion’s first female primate in November 2006 when she was invested as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.