In England, women bishops a closer reality with new legislation

By Matthew Davies
Posted Feb 11, 2014
General Synod, the Church of England's main legislative body, meets Feb. 10-12 at Church House in Westminster.

General Synod, the Church of England’s main legislative body, meets Feb. 10-12 at Church House in Westminster.

[Episcopal News Service] For some it might be a case of déjà vu; for others it’s a new day as the Church of England cleared a major hurdle Feb. 11 giving its assent to new legislation that would enable women to become bishops.

Meeting in Westminster, the church’s General Synod supported legislation “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 15 months after synod narrowly rejected similar, but more complex, legislation to accept women as bishops. 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 overall majority.

The legislation, called a measure, now needs to be approved by a majority of the church’s 44 dioceses, which would typically take at least 12 months. But synod achieved the required 75 percent majority to suspend temporarily one of its standing orders and agreed to curtail the consultation period for the dioceses to just a few months, thus enabling the legislation to come back to synod in July for final approval. The deadline for diocesan responses is midnight on May 22. Last time, 42 of the 44 dioceses supported the legislation. Since the creation of synod in 1970, this is the first time a piece of legislation on the same subject has had to be sent to the dioceses for a second time.

While today’s vote required a straight majority, final approval at synod would require a two-thirds majority in all three houses of laity, clergy and bishops.

And even then, the measure would still require approval by the U.K. Parliament because it 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, it was clear from parliamentary debate that many of the U.K.’s politicians were getting impatient with the church’s drawn-out journey towards acceptance of women bishops. Were synod to give final approval in July, the U.K. Parliament may take up the matter before the end of 2014.

Today’s debate indicated that many former opponents in synod are willing 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, which synod welcomed on Feb. 11, 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.”

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.

Last November, synod agreed that the new legislation should move forward as swiftly as possible, and come to the February synod for its revision stage rather than to go to a revision committee, essentially eliminating up to one year in the process.

Following the synod debate on Feb. 11, no revisions were made and the proposed new legislative package remained intact.

Several speakers upheld the importance of reciprocity, as outlined in the bishops’ declaration, “that everyone, notwithstanding differences of conviction on this issue, will accept that they can rejoice in each other’s partnership in the Gospel and cooperate to the maximum possible extent in mission and ministry. There will need to be an acknowledgement that the differences of view which persist stem from an underlying divergence of theological conviction.”

The Rev. Simon Killwick from the Diocese of Manchester is chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod, a coalition that has pushed for greater provisions for those opposed to women bishops. Killwick said he hopes the legislative package “will proceed smoothly and quickly through its final stages” while acknowledging that the church has “been greatly blessed by the degree of reconciliation that has taken place” throughout the last 15 months.

Sue Slater, a lay synod member from the Diocese of Lincoln, said she wants the Church of England to be a place “where I can talk to my children and grandchildren about … our Gospel, not just about our church order … We know that God makes things new with each generation.”

Timothy Allen, lay synod member from the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich said the delay “has done and continues to do great damage to the reputation and mission of the church. We need to take measures to convince society that we are not the hopelessly out of date, old fashioned and bigoted organization it is often felt to be.”

Allen added that “the shallow pond of male-only candidates has been overfished.”

Lindsay Newcombe, a lay synod member from the Diocese of London and the vice chairman of Forward in Faith, an organization opposed to women’s ordination, said she has found the conversations during the past year to be “mostly encouraging. I believe that there is a will to stop…talking past each other. How brilliant that we have shown that we have the will to work together through our differences.”

History of women’s ordained ministry
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 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 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 and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (3)

  1. Pearl McElheran says:

    Too bad the “Defender of the Faith” can’t step in to hurry this process along.

  2. Selena Smith says:

    Oh, well, glad for women becoming more recognized as people. Perhaps in another 40 years Anglicans will reverse their thoughts about still not including gay people in life and among the clerical leadership of the Church as most of those bishops – like Welby – will be gone by then – if not them, then the denomination gone into history.

  3. Robert Birdsall says:

    “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

Comments are closed.