Church of England Rejects Women Bishops

The General Synod of the Church of England rejected a proposal to permit women to serve as bishops. In order to pass, a 2/3 majority vote was required in all three houses: the house of bishops, of clergy, and of laity. The measure passed easily in the first two, and was approved 132-74 in the house of laity, falling just 6 votes shy for 64%. (One wonders how the Supreme Governor of the C of E, Queen Elizabeth, feels about this exclusion of women from the episcopacy. I suspect she is not amused.) Both the outgoing and the incoming Archbishops of Canterbury spoke in favor the measure, along with 72.6% of the synod delegates. Overall, 74% of members of the Church approve women bishops. Strikingly, the house of bishops voted 44-3 in favor (with 2 abstentions.) According to the Guardian, the house of bishops will convene an emergency session to consider ways to rescue the measure.

Arguably, the proposal was flawed. In an attempt to foster passage, a compromise clause was added that would allow parishes who did not wish to be led by a woman bishop to be answerable to a male bishop instead. The Church has ordained women priests since 1994, but traditionalists have been able to basically ignore them, finding more congenial parishes in which to worship, and the "opt-out" provision would allow them to continue to avoid female leadership.The tradionalists' concerns include these:Consecrating (if that is the correct term in that church) women bishops would mean that traditionalists would doubt the validity of the ordination of priests ordained by women bishops, which strikes me as an odd echo of the Donatist controversy. Anglo-Catholics also worry that having women bishops would endanger reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. Last I knew--and please do correct me if I'm off-base here--Anglican orders are considered invalid, or at best in a limbo-ish state of doubtful validity, by Rome. So, gosh, thanks for trying to play by Roman rules, but the Vatican doesn't recognize Anglican clergy anyway, male or female. And of course Anglicans who dislike female leadership are always welcome in the Anglican ordinariate, where something like 60 clergy and 900 C of E members have joined up so far. Some opponents of women bishops argue that they want to know that their bishop agrees with them that women are unworthy to lead. However, the vote in the house of bishops today should reveal to them that they cannot be assured of that now. And the other side had issues, too: some supporters of women bishops didn't care for the proposal either, since it seems to make women bishops second-class bishops because of the "opt-out" provision for dissenting parishes, while no male bishops are subject to that provision.

Given the strong support for the measure from church members and all the ordained, it seems possible that today's defeat will lead to reintroduction of new legislation with less allowance for those who oppose women bishops, not more. After all, lay delegates are elected, and these are clearly out of step with the laity they represent. We'll see. And a final thought: some believe that Church unity requires yielding to the voices of the most conservative. In fact, today's vote reveals that Church unity is a trickier beast. Today the minority against women bishops set themselves against most laity, clergy and bishops in their own church, and reinscribed a division within the worldwide Communion. 23 women are presently serving as bishops in the Anglican Communion worldwide, including Episcopal Church (USA) presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The most recently elected is Bishop Ellina Wamukoa of Swaziland. It is a sad day for those of us who rejoice at women's leadership in the Christian churches, but I cannot believe that this is the end of the line for the question of women bishops in the Church of England.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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