Women bishops approved: welcome step towards inclusion

Women bishops approved: welcome step towards inclusion

The Church of England’s general synod has given the go-ahead for women to be bishops. The move won the required minimum of two-thirds of votes among bishops and both lay and clergy representatives at the gathering in York. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20648) For some synod votes, the three ‘houses’ vote separately and a simple majority is not enough.

This is a welcome step towards a church which seeks to recognise God’s image in people of diverse backgrounds and make use of their gifts. However full inclusion is still some distance away, for women and others who have been marginalised.

Though women played a crucial role in the early church, for much of history they were excluded by most denominations from being clergy or elders. But in recent centuries this changed. Some denominations led the way; Anglicans took longer.

“The inferiority of women, accepted as axiomatic almost up to our own day, and justified by now discredited biological and psychological assumptions, is now seen to be no longer self-evident,” stated a report by an archbishops’ commission in 1966. This examined the case for and against women’s ordination.

In 1975, synod agreed “that there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood”, but a motion in 1978 aimed at letting women become priests and bishops was defeated by clergy representatives. It was not until 1993 that all necessary legislation was passed and, by then, it had been watered down so heavily that even women who got ordained often felt their priesthood was not valued.

Some clergy and parishioners had come to support ordination regardless of gender on theological grounds. Others who were at first reluctant changed their views when they experienced women’s ministry and believed they could see the Holy Spirit at work. However some remained opposed, sometimes vocally, despite generous concessions which were possibly unmatched anywhere else in the world. These included certain ‘conservative’ evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics.

While Church of England leaders tried to placate this increasingly small minority, laywomen were leaving this and other British churches in huge numbers, in part because of a hierarchical and disempowering ethos, as well as time pressures and other factors. In 2008, sociologist of religion Kristin Aune estimated that an average of 50,000 a year had quit since 1989 – a million in total.

Pressure grew to let the best candidates be chosen as bishops, whatever their gender. An attempt was made to legislate for this at synod in 2012, with extensive provisions for those against women’s ordination. However the move still went too far for some, and was narrowly defeated in the house of laity. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17479)

There was widespread indignation among parishioners, across the nation and in parliament. The complicated election system tends to mean that certain groups have disproportionate power in synod. A survey in 2013 found that 85 per cent of Anglicans in England and Wales favoured allowing women bishops, with just nine per cent against.

Under heavy pressure and afraid that the church’s prestige would be further affected, the bishops tried a new approach, based on clear recognition of women’s ministry while leaving space for those ‘unable’ to accept the ministry of women bishops or priests to flourish. On 14 July 2014, there was intense debate and some who helped to block progress in 2012 shifted their position.

The voting was 37 to two in favour among the bishops (with 1abstention), 162 to 25 for the clergy (four abstentions) and 152 to 45 among the laity (five abstentions). Both desire for unity and pragmatism played a part.

This is a major step forward, not only on grounds of justice and equality but also because diversity among bishops and priests encourages diverse laypeople to exercise the ‘priesthood of all believers’ (1 Peter 2.9). However the road ahead is not entirely clear.

A number of conservative evangelicals who spoke in the debate appeared unwilling to compromise. Some vigorously criticised the views of supporters of women’s ordination with no recognition that the Bible might be interpreted in varying ways, others seemed unhappy that their own views were not regarded as being above criticism.

Several are aligned with the divisive Global Anglican Future Conference, which has sought greater power in the Anglican Communion, including undermining bishops with different opinions on sexuality. The first women bishops to be appointed may encounter unhelpful behaviour from a at least a few people. If inclusion of other kinds moves forward, bishops as a whole may face further challenges and even rebellion from some of those already disaffected over women’s ordination.

New bishops may also face subtler problems, including temptation to conform to the gentleman’s club-type atmosphere sometimes found among Church of England senior clergy. Though many leaders are dedicated, prayerful and humane, it is easy to slip into implicitly accepting the hierarchies in church and society and avoid the more radical implications of the good news of Christ. To make things run smoothly, honesty is also sometimes discouraged: for instance not a single gay bishop is ‘out’.

If women bishops can foster a more open, egalitarian culture in the Church of England, this would be valuable. Perhaps this is expecting too much of them, at least at first. At any rate, the removal of the bar to women’s ordination to all forms of ministry is cause for celebration.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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