England says ‘no’ to women as bishops

By Matthew Davies
Posted Nov 20, 2012

Incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is applauded after speaking in favor of the women bishops legislation during a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in London Nov. 20. Photo: REUTERS/Yui Mok

[Episcopal News Service] The Church of England on Nov. 20 rejected legislation that would have enabled women to become bishops.

The legislation, called a measure, required a two-thirds majority in all three houses of laity, clergy and bishops at General Synod, the church’s main governing body meeting at Church House in Westminster. The measure passed the houses of bishops and clergy, but failed in the House of Laity by 6 votes. The laity voted 132 in favor, 74 against, with 0 abstentions; clergy 148 in favor, 45 against, with 0 abstentions; and bishops 44 in favor, 3 against, with 2 abstentions.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu said 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.

Speaking after the vote, Bishop Graham James of Norwich, said: “A clear majority of the General Synod today voted in favor of the legislation to consecrate women as bishops. But the bar of approval is set very high in this synod. Two-thirds of each house has to approve the legislation for it to pass. This ensures the majority is overwhelming. The majority in the House of Laity was not quite enough. This leaves us with a problem. 42 out of 44 dioceses approved the legislation and more than three quarters of members of diocesan synods voted in favor. There will be many who wonder why the General Synod expressed its mind so differently.”

According to a press release from the Church of England, the House of Bishops will hold an emergency meeting at 8.30 a.m. on Nov. 21 to consider the consequences of the vote.

Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, named recently as the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, had expressed enthusiasm for the legislation and his overall support for female bishops. Ahead of the Nov. 20 vote, he urged synod to pass the measure, acknowledging that the past 20 years of women’s ordained ministry “has contributed enormously to the Church of England.”

Welby received prolonged applause after saying: “We cannot get trapped into believing this is a zero-sum decision, where one person’s gain must be another person’s loss. That is not a theology of grace…We Christians are those who carry peace and grace as a treasure for the world. We must be those who live a better way.”

Incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said he recognized that most synod members would have arrived at their “substantive convictions over a long period of time.” But, he said, “a ‘no’ vote would not do anything positive for our mission, and the question remains: how much energy do we want to spend on this in the next decade.”

Williams said that he hoped “we can decide to liberate ourselves … I do believe it’s time to turn a page.”

Williams began a month-long campaign in October, called “Enough Waiting,” to persuade General Synod members to back the female bishops legislation, saying that he considered it “inconsistent to exclude in principle any baptized person from the possibility of ordained ministry.”

Many of those opposed to the legislation cited among their reasons that the measure does not offer adequate provisions for those who cannot accept women bishops.

The General Synod is the national assembly of the Church of England. It continues a tradition of synodical government, which in England has its origins in the medieval period.

A pivotal moment in setting the stage for today’s vote came in July 2006, when the synod called for the practical and legislative arrangements of admitting women to the episcopate to be explored.

Tom Pugh, a Church of England Youth Council representative at the time, told the 2006 synod that he didn’t have difficulty with women becoming bishops because he came from a generation in which men and women seemed to be treated equally at all levels.

“I have never known the world without the ordained ministry of women,” he said. “I am told there was once a woman prime minister, but that was well before my time.”

Fast forward six years. Hannah Page, a current youth council representative, told today’s synod that she was 1 year old in 1992 and that she had grown up in a Church of England that always included women priests. “It would appear to me that we have been discussing this issue my entire life and waiting for a decision,” she said. “Please don’t make me wait until I am 30 before making a decision.”

The Nov. 20 debate lasted almost seven hours with more than 110 synod members speaking to the measure.

Bishop Nigel McCulloch of Manchester, introducing the debate, said: “Today, I believe we are in a better place. I hope that today’s debate will answer one key question – will God’s mission and ministry be advanced better if this legislation is approved or if it is rejected?”

McCulloch said he believed the measure would have enabled the Church of England “to flourish and enable women to exercise leadership that the great majority of us see as God’s gift to this church. And I believe that those with theological differences will be enabled to have an honored place within [the] Church of England and will be able to continue their valued contribution to the mission of the church. Let’s not underestimate the degree of compromise and accommodation they have made.”

The Rev. Canon Simon Killwick, a synod member from the Diocese of Manchester, said that the legislation would not be good for the church. “We are all desperate to move on from the sad conflicts of [the] last few years, but this legislation does not provide a clear way forward,” he said, noting that it relies on a code of practice yet to be drawn up and agreed to.

“The code has the potential for becoming a new battle ground,” he said. “The furor over the bishops’ modest clause in the summer gives an idea of what we might face. There could be a struggle over the context of the code for years to come. This does not provide a clear and lasting way forward.”

Killwick refers to clause 5 (1) (c), which the House of Bishops had introduced to the legislation earlier in May and which suggested that a code of practice called for in the now-defeated measure should have enabled parishes who do not accept female bishops to request a male bishop who shares their beliefs.

A final vote had been expected on the draft measure in July, but the synod agreed after some heated debate to send the legislation back to the House of Bishops and not to vote on final approval until November. The postponement was intended to allow the House of Bishops further consideration of the amendment it had introduced.

Opponents of women bishops welcomed the bishops’ clause, but many supporters found it unacceptable.

Those opposed to the amendment said that the legislation already contained a provision for parishes who object to female bishops to request that they be placed under the care of a male alternative, but they said that the bishops’ amendment could be viewed as discrimination. Williams told the July synod that an adjournment might “lower the temperature” within the Church of England over the dispute.

The bishops met in mid-September and agreed on an amendment to their amendment, submitted by the Rev. Janet Appleby, a synod member from Tyne & Wear, to say that the code should cover “the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which Parochial Church Councils issue Letters of Request.”

Had the measure passed, Letters of Request would have been the way a traditionalist parish would have asked for a new priest or for episcopal oversight by someone other than the diocesan bishop.

After the bishops’ Sept. 12 meeting, Williams called it “particularly significant and welcome that the new text emerged not from the House of Bishops itself but rather from a serving woman priest.”

Bishop James Jones of the Diocese of Liverpool said during synod’s Nov. 20 debate that the future of the Church of England was at stake.

“With a third of all clergy being women, the parish network would now collapse without their leadership and ministry,” he said. “Without the leadership of women the worldwide church would be smaller … The truth is that without women in leadership we no longer are able to serve the people of parishes in England … I now believe that for the mission of God for the people of England it is right for women to take their place in this House of Bishops.”

But Jane Pattison of the Diocese of Sheffield urged the synod to defeat the measure, saying that it would “promote the loss of conservative evangelical and traditional catholic ministry in the Church of England. I suggest that the church cannot afford this loss. … England cannot afford this loss if we are serious about sharing the gospel with the nation.”

Philip Giddings, chair of the House of Laity, said it was his role to ensure that the views of the whole house were heard. “Synod already knows that the substantial majority are in favor of women bishops [but] … can we not find a better way of taking this historical step…without unchurching those who cannot in conscience accept [women as bishops]?” he asked. “We may disagree with the dissenting minority, but does that mean we have to exclude them from the future of this church? … You cannot achieve a solution unless all parties agree to it and own it. That’s the missing piece in this legislative package. Those for whom the provisions are intended do not own it.”

The Rev. David Houlding of the Diocese of London acknowledged that there would be “pain and distress, anger and tears, whichever way the vote goes” but said that it was important “to protect the rights of the minority … We are all right and we are all seeking to be obedient … to make sure that the code of practice delivers what we need it to, and therein will lie our battle.

If this legislation is not clear and acceptable to all, Houlding said, “then what hope is there that a code of practice will work? … We need to wait patiently in prayer, prayer that God will lead us to a consensus … But I am committed to this process whatever we decide today … because we do have an honored place in the beloved life of this church.”

Meanwhile, the Ven. Jan McFarlane of the Diocese of Norwich, speaking in favor of the measure, said: “I’ve listened and listened and listened and listened, and for the past year I don’t think I’ve heard anything new. And in today’s debate, I don’t think I’ve heard anything new. You could argue we’ve been waiting almost 2000 years for this point … Come on synod, vote for the sake of the church and its witness.”

History of women’s ordained ministry
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 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 an “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 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.

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.

– Matthew Davies is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (22)

  1. Mark B. A. Cappetta says:

    I am deeply in shock and sadness over the Church Of England’s House of Laity’s decision against the consecration of female bishops. My shock comes from the fact that the HOL voted against this, but the Clergy and Bishops voted in favour. Usually it is the laity who affirm such equal status of ordained persons. I know very many of my sisters and brothers in the USA share my sadness over this decision. I pray this will NOT be the end of the discussion.

  2. Nancy Barnard Starr says:

    ‘We have resisted the Wisdom of God
    and refused to seek her face’. — Janet Morley,
    (Litany of penitence for the denial
    of women’s authority)

    As I see it, most voted in favour of women as bishops; it took only a handful of laity to vote the measure down. So sad, so insular! a decision that affects the Communion and the wider world. I remember coming down for lunch while in seminary to find strawberries and champagne in the refectory at CDSP — we celebrated as women became priests in C of E. May there be another sea change soon. Again from Janet Morley, a blessing for women taking on authority: ‘May your vision be fulfilled, in company with us; may you have brothers on your journey’ — and sisters, too.

  3. The Reverend Canon Susan Russell says:

    Today the Church of England confused “unity” with “unison” and voted down a compromise resolution that would have ended centuries of discrimination against women as bishops while leaving a place to stand for those who disagree.

    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. 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.

    Today’s decision was inward looking, short-sighted and a deep disappointment to all who yearn for a robust proclamation of the inclusive love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus. 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.

  4. So very sad. I am sure that “Wormwood” of C.S. Lewis’ imagination would be rejoicing today that so few were able to inflict such great harm on so many and on the ministry of love and inclusion that Christ himself has left in our hands.

  5. The Rev. Rodgers T. Wood says:

    I am appalled at this vote. We are setting the church back decades. The ministry of women has been proven over and over again to be in the best interest of Christianity and deeply obedient to the Word of God as we have received it through Jesus. We are faced again with the sexual bigotry of small people who have no idea what they are preventing. I was present in 1994 at the ordination of a woman in Blackpool who was an elegant priest. I can’t imagine the mindset of people who would deny the Episcopate to women.

  6. Alda Morgan says:

    It is very difficult, after all this time, not to see this action as a stubborn rearguard maneuver. I am so sorry for the disappointed majority who pleaded for the ordination of women to the episcopate and for the fearful stubborn minority who successfully opposed it. And I am sad for the Church’s witness, imposing yet another internal dispute between the world and the Gospel.

  7. If indeed this astonishing miscarriage of justice was due to an unlikely coalition of those actually opposed and those who did not think the measure went far enough, it is the most foolish action since those in this country voted for Ralph Nader thereby defeating Al Gore, electing George W. Bush and sending us into two wars and an economic calamity. So sad…

    1. Alfred Russsel Wallace says:


    2. David S. Halsted says:

      Regarding Chuch of England and George Bush analogy: get over yourself. I’m quite sure your guy won this time. The simple fact is that like so many other members of the Communion, the COE has a markedly different polity from ours. And while I agree that the decision is unfortunate, it doesn’t change the fact that we all belong to GOD and that we all pray that “Thy will be done.” Nothing in there about OUR will be done. The time will come

  8. Darcy Scholts says:

    Every time I feel that maybe I can come out of self-imposed exile and re-establish ties with a church that has the unfortunate effect of making me feel unsafe and kicked in the teeth over and over again, something like this happens. I guess it is still not meant to be.

  9. Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry says:

    The Church of England will remain the most beautiful anachronism and religious museum of the 21st century! No lady bishops, there are bishops who are “ladies” believe me I have met a few, but no women need apply. This has not been a good week for either the Episcopalians or the Anglicans. But have no fear the day will come when gender is not the determiner of calling and vocation even the Romans may have to change, well in about a hundred or so years. The Orthodox naw never but Pentecost may yet happen again!

  10. Leon Spencer says:

    I share the dismay of those who have commented. What is striking are the convoluted arguments about including the minority in “unity”, in essence presenting us once again with the conundrum of being told to include those whose agenda is to exclude. Respecting the dignity of all is of critical importance, of course, but “what will become of us if women are consecrated bishops?” does not deserve our respect.

  11. Christopher Cleveland says:

    I applaud the outcome of this vote even as I support womens ordination at all levels.
    The Anglican Communion is bleeding out and in great distress, largely due to TEC.
    There are too many unresolved conflicts tearing at the church and a vote of this magnitude would only add to our identity crisis and lead many more to leave the CofE for Rome.
    We must live between now and not yet while the church is in triage. The vote will happen in due season.

  12. Jane Gilgun says:

    I am sad. It’s hard to be a member of a class of people who are excluded. I find the term “temporary delay” ironic because women have waited for 2000 years and individual women have waited their entire lives. I don’t think the call to love and serve God through a religious institution is a gendered call. God calls each of us to be ourselves.

  13. John Buck says:

    My first thought on hearing this news was that TEC should emphasize to all Americans that even though it is related to COE, it is not controlled by COE.

    My second thought was that this provides a firm indication that they consider the human body to be more important than the human mind.

    My third thought was that there’s no liturgical (or at least biblical) reference to COE (or even to England), so maybe the whole enterprise needs rethinking.

    And, fourth, I guess even Queen Elizabeth couldn’t be a COE bishop.

  14. Julian Malakar says:

    Minority voice is hard, for unity of the Church. Let’s God be glorified, neither man nor woman’s power.

  15. Vic Spencer says:

    I can’t imagine why women want to be bishops. On the other hand: they couldn’t do a worse job than the men have done.

  16. Robert Smith says:

    This is an opportunity for gentleness. The Episcopal Church must speak to her mother in charity, not with anger, with a gentle guiding voice. The Episcopal Church must show the benefit that comes with women’s ordination. As unfair as it is, this means that the women who are bishops in America must work extra hard to be a positive example. It is also worth noting that if the Episcopal Church can accomplish this, it might show a way to guide the Roman Church to accepting women’s ordination. As hard as it may be, I think this could be an opportunity for wonderful things.

    1. John Whitlock says:

      It took quite awhile for the spirit to work in the Episcopal Church and patience was the key.
      It will eventually happen. Continue the prayers.

  17. Moses KInuthia says:

    The Church will always wait on God for direction and am sure that for now this is what is right the few Laity who stood their ground and said No God bless them for the rest accept defeat and wait till 2015 and make provision
    for those parishes that are conservative

  18. Leslie K. Sterling+ says:

    Those who are still opposed to women being consecrated as bishops can kick and scream and dig their heels in the sand, but look at the vote totals. The arc of the universe is bending toward justice, and 2015 is not that far away.

  19. This vote is terrible and the motives of the people who “cannot accept female bishops” are nothing short of disgusting. Parliament should swiftly right this wrong and leave those who “cannot accept female bishops” behind. Such people are useless and deserve no respect.

Comments are closed.