On Monday 14 July 2014 the General Synod of the Church of England voted to ordain women as bishops following five hours of debate. Women were first ordained as deacons from 1985 onwards, the issue of ordaining women having first appeared on the agenda at the Lambeth Conference back in 1920 (see resolutions 47-54). The first women priests were ordained twenty years ago, and now make up around one third of clergy.

The Voting Process

The General Synod (formed in 1970) is comprised of three Houses: the House of Bishops, the House of the Clergy, and the House of the Laity (representing the ordinary member). In order for a vote to pass, it needs to gain a two thirds of the vote in each of three Houses. Back when the issue was voted on in November 2012 (discussed in this post), it failed to meet the two thirds majority in the House of Laity, but was passed by both Bishops and Clergy. This time the vote passed in all three Houses. For those interested audio of Monday’s sessions are available here, here and here. The debate for women bishops began at 11.15am in the morning session. The vote result is reported as follows:

  • Bishops 37 in favour, 2 against, 1 recorded abstention
  • Clergy 164 in favour, 24 against, 3 recorded abstentions
  • Laity 153 in favour, 40 against, 8 recorded abstentions

The Issues

For traditionalist members there are numerous barriers to accepting women bishops, and they use much same arguments we see opposing the ordination of women in the LDS church. Bishops oversee a diocese, so in that sense they are more akin to our stake presidents than our bishops. A diocese is a collection of parishes. Bishops also ordain priests. Priests are responsible for parishes, and have a similar role to our bishops. Put simply, traditionalist members would in general, require to be served by a priest ordained by a male bishop, and supervised by a male bishop. Whilst there are indeed parish boundaries, these are not enforced for the attending congregation, so it is perfectly possible for a member living within the boundaries of a parish with a female priest to attend church in a neighbouring parish served by a male priest.

Some traditionalist members hope for reconciliation with the Roman Catholic church, and see ordination of women as a barrier to that goal.

Changing Minds

At the time of the 2012 vote, complex procedures had been drawn up to protect the interests of traditionalist members. This was not enough to win enough votes amongst the laity, so what changed minds? This time around things were altogether simpler, and seem to have been based on trust instead of complex procedures. In the time between the last vote, and this vote the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called in professional Christian mediators, previously involved in peace negotiations with paramilitary organisations, to bring the different factions together. The result was simply a legally binding commitment to creating space for all Anglicans to flourish within the church, and to leave the nuts and bolts decisions as to how that will work for progressive and more traditionalist members to be managed locally.

Moving Forward

There were of course, those who voted against, some of whom are predicting schism if supporters are not “as magnanimous as you said you would be”. Much has been taken on trust, and requires that that trust not be abused or broken. From the Telegraph:

“One of the most striking interventions was from Mr Vincent, a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic, who voted against in 2012. He said: “I shall be voting in favour today – by doing so, I am betraying what I believe, I am betraying those who trusted in me. I hope that the promised commitment to ‘mutual flourishing’ is not a commitment that will run out of steam in a few years.””

The first women bishops could be ordained by the end of the year. It is going to be interesting to observe how it all plays out, but I’m impressed that it starts with the different factions understanding each other, via mediation, and trust that each will be respected.

In closing, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby:

“The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds. Very few institutions achieve this, but if we manage this we will be living our more fully the call of Jesus Christ to love one another.”

I love this statement. I hope they manage it.

  • What are your views on the structure of the General Synod?
  • How would you feel about the general membership having a greater input in the LDS church? And how might that be achieved?
  • What do you make of the use of professional mediators?
  • How might we better model “good disagreement”? Should we?