Church of England says ‘yes’ to women as bishops

By Matthew Davies
Posted Jul 14, 2014
Members of the Church of England's Synod attend the session during which they discussed and voted on the consecration of women bishops, in York, July 14. Photo: REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Members of the Church of England’s Synod attend the session during which they discussed and voted on the consecration of women bishops, in York, July 14. Photo: REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

[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.


Comments (10)

  1. Phillip Saleh says:

    Hearty congratulations to Synod on voting to allow women to become Bishops. It is as though surgery has been performed to correct a non-functioning member in the body, so that now the body had the potential to function at full strength. In the words of Bishop Tutu: “Yippee!”

  2. Javier Bronson says:

    I find it appalling that intelligent Anglicans worldwide
    struggle over all these non-issues but fail to educate themselves on the
    true “pagan” origins of Christianity, and continue to recite the Nicene Creed
    with their fingers crossed behind their back. When will a true leader emerge who can
    sincerely talk about about this great hoax of our age instead of the controversial legislation regarding “ordaining women as bishops”.

    1. Bruce Garner says:

      I rejoice at this news. Women clergy have taught me so much about God. They show the feminine side of God as expressed in Genesis where God created male and female in God’s image. In order to have female’s created in God’s image, God must also be female as well as male. Men tend to be threatened by women clergy. They conjure up all sorts of reasons why women should not be ordained. Apparently they forget the involvement of women in Jesus ministry. They also forget that His ministry was financed by wealthy women.

      And by the way, I don’t say the Nicene Creed with my fingers crossed behind my back. I say it because I believe it. I have faith in what it proclaims. I’m a biologist by educational training and I believe in both evolution and “creationism” as well. It isn’t contradictory or difficult. The Nicene Creed simply outlines what we believe. It doesn’t provide a mechanism for such things as the birth of Jesus, His resurrection or ascension. I see evolution as the mechanism by which God created. I don’t have a clue about how Jesus was conceived, but it doesn’t matter, what matters is that conception took place and Jesus was born. I have no idea how God resurrected the dead body of Jesus. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that resurrection took place. There are such things as Holy Mysteries….and we take them on faith and trust alone, not on how or if we understand how they work, happened or whatever.

  3. Kathleen Cathey says:

    Though changes can be glacial, at least they are happening! Hooray for the Anglican Communion around the world, as men and women serve together ‘officially’ now, just as they have been for ages ‘in the trenches’ sharing the light of Christ.

  4. margaret davis says:

    Mr Garner,thank you very much for your comments on the Nicene Creed.

  5. Mike Lawlor says:

    In fact we, in the Church of England, hope that they will be like the distinguished Bishops that you list here.

  6. Denise Noel-DeBique says:

    “Ain’t that good news!”

  7. The Rev. Frank J. Corbishley says:

    Let us not forget that the very structure of the Church is conservative. A two-thirds majority was required in all three Houses of Synod for this to pass. This indeed represents widespread consensus in the Church of England on this issue. It’s wonderful news.

  8. Vara Sue Tamminga says:

    Historically, the Christian Church has spread teachings which have undermined the equality of women, despite Jesus’ own example of treating women with revolutionary respect and importance in his own ministry. The Catholic Church massacred the Cathars in medieval France. They taught not only the equality of men and women but also carried on the legends of Mary Magdalene escaping to France possibly as the wife of Jesus and mother of his child. The Catholic church for centuries has exterminated all those who questioned or opposed male centric teachings which may have been nothing but atrocious lies. We know for sure that women were teaching and speaking in the early house churches which is why Paul felt obliged to speak out against them. We have now discovered ancient Gospels from Thomas, Phillip, and Mary Magdalene which give a very different view of early Christianity than the Catholic church has designed by murdering and torturing heretics for thousands of years. Those Catholic crimes are many, and I pray that the Catholic church and its army of puppet soldiers repent of their crimes and lies before they face their maker.

    President Jimmy Carter told a recent conference celebrating civil rights at the LBJ Library at UT Austin, that there are now more slaves in America than there were before the Civil War. They are mostly women and children trapped in the sex trade. He lays the blame for this horror in part on the role the Christian church has played in promoting the inequality of women. He and his wife have left the conservative Baptist church because of their stand on women and he now worships in a liberal Baptist church with a woman pastor. I cannot understand how Christians who believe that there is a God of the universe can continue to commit crimes of persecution against those who disagree with them or against women to try to “show them their place.” I can only imagine that they are actually atheists who do not believe in an afterlife. The Church needs to follow Jesus, not world empires corrupted by criminals. It must lead the way in freeing women and children from modern slavery and promote equal respect for all people regardless of race, religion, sex, handicap, or age. Until it does these things, it has failed to follow Jesus’ commandments to love our neighbor and love our enemies. I pray every day for the soul of the Church, especially for those religious people who have devised sneaky ways to avoid criminal prosecution while abusing or murdering other people. I applaud the Episcopal Church on this step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough to undo the damage that 2000 years of discrimination has caused, I pray it looks for all the many ways that it can heal the terrible prejudice against women that Christianity has perpetuated for centuries.

  9. Christopher Lo says:

    Just a correction and some additional information to Fr. Matthew’s above time line.

    Florence Li’s (Li Tim-Oi) historic ordination to the priesthood in early 1944, was a quiet and simple affair. The congregation was small but filled the little church in Zhaoqing (not Hong Kong which was then under Japanese occupation during WWII). Just one priest assisted Bishop Ronald Owen Hall. There were, or course, none of Florence Li’s family present. The congregation was, however, increased by the presence of the pastor and members of the local Chinese Holiness Church, members of the local institute for the blind, and the Baptist minister.

    It took Florence Li a horrendous four day journey to be “smuggled” from the then Portuguese colony of Macao, under Japanese occupation, to Zhaoqing, a prefecture-level city of Guangdong province, then under the control of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s government of the Republic of China. Ronald Owen Hall, was the Bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong since 1932, and then from 1951 of the smaller Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao until his retirement in 1966.

    After the war, when the news of the irregular ordination reached Archbishop William Temple of Canterbury and the Church of England, Florence Li put aside her priestly functions in order to save Bishop Hall the embarrassment of being defrocked as a bishop at the 1948 Lambeth Conference. She wrote to Bishop Hall in the following way, “I would like to keep quiet to help the church. You are an important man, I am a mere worm, a tiny little worm.” Florence Li was adamant that she never resigned her priestly order, rather she put her priestly functions aside in order to help maintain the status quo, until she arrived in Canada in the late seventies. In 1998, fifty years after the Lambeth Conference that thoroughly condemned Bishop Ronald Owen Hall’s unilateral action, saw the first women bishops ever to attend a Lambeth Conference. The “little worm” helped move a mountain.

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