Emotional scenes greeted the decision this evening by the General Synod of the Church of England, its governing body, to confirm the Church’s intention to consecrate women as bishops – a historic move which follows the decision to ordain women as priests in 1994.
Speaking on BBC television’s Newsnight programme, Archdeacon Christine Hardman, from Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark, said that the decision was based on the Gospel imperative to recognise the spiritual gifts and authority of women in the church and in society.
Significantly, General Synod (comprising three ‘houses’ of bishops, clergy and laity) decided to reject so-called ‘super bishops’ and all-male dioceses - which would have had the effect of making women bishops ‘second class’, proponents warned.
The rejection came after a strong statement from Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who said that while serious efforts should be made not to alienate dissenters, "I am deeply unhappy with any scheme or any solution to this which ends up, as it were, structurally humiliating women who might be nominated to the episcopate."
Because the Church of England is formally Established under the Crown, its decision, slightly bizarrely many will feel, has to be ratified by parliament. But this may have a beneficial side effect for women, since current standards of equality are higher in the secular institution than the sacred one.
A number of senior parliamentary figures had made it clear that they would not accept institutionalised inequality in the matter of episcopacy. Indeed, provisions of the kind that anti-women's ordination campaigners were demanding might well have proved illegal.
However, a national ‘code of practice’, the contents of which have not been revealed yet, is being formulated to accommodate those who oppose women’s ordained ministry. This was also approved in principle by the Synod, meeting in York, and is likely to be a source of some contention - especially as it is being described as "statutory".
Archdeacon Hardman said tonight that a code of conduct could not and should not be used to impose, via the ‘back door’, those discriminatory provisions Synod had just rejected.
Bishop John Broadhurst of Fulham, an opponent of women priests and bishops, reiterated the claim that a significant number of male clergy (some say over a thousand) may leave the church if they do not see the code as being sufficiently forceful.
But he recognised that consecrating some women as bishops was a logical consequence of ordaining a larger number priests.
In passing the measure allowing women to exercise Episcopal ministry, Synod decisively rejected amendments that would have structurally created bishops mandated to give away their authority or dioceses that would have been all-male enclaves. But the status of its alternative 'code' is at present uncertain.
“This is a great and long overdue moment for full recognition of the ministry of women in the church and the full dignity of women in society,” an observer told Ekklesia this evening.
After two successful amendments, the final form of the substantive motion became:
That this Synod:
(a) affirm that the wish of its majority is for women to be admitted to the episcopate;
(b) affirm its view 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;
(c) affirm that these should be contained in a statutory national code of practice to which all concerned would be required to have regard; and
(d) instruct the legislative drafting group, in consultation with the House of Bishops, to complete its work accordingly, including preparing the first draft of a code of practice, so that the Business Committee can include first consideration of the draft legislation in the agenda for the February 2009 group of sessions.
Following a vote by all three houses, the motion was carried - by 28 to 12 among the bishops, with one abstention; by 124 to 44 among the clergy, with 4 abstentions; and by 111 to 68 among the laity, with two abstentions.
The book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia.