In a surprise move that shocked both sides of a years-long debate, the Church of England on Nov. 20 rejected an expected move to allow women bishops, preserving the church’s status as one of the last bastions of male privilege in the United Kingdom.
Many of the 470 members of the church’s three-tiered General Synod (bishops, clergy and laity) were stunned that the House of Laity couldn’t garner a two-thirds majority in favor of women bishops. The voted failed by just five votes, 132-74, after easily passing the bishops and clergy.
“The consequence of the ‘no’ vote of terminating any further consideration of the draft legislation means that it will not be possible to introduce draft legislation in the same terms until a new General Synod comes into being in 2015,” a church statement said.
Bishop Graham James of Norwich was perplexed by the vote, especially after 42 out of 44 dioceses approved the move, and more than three-quarters of local diocesan synods had voted in favor.
“There will be many who wonder why the General Synod expressed its mind so differently,” he said.
The rejection is seen as a slap to the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and his successor, Justin Welby. Both men had urged the General Synod to vote for women bishops, 18 years after the church opened the priesthood to women.
The vote came after almost nine hours of debate and months of lobbying by both sides. While the vote was expected to be close, many believed Welby’s full-throated support — “It is time to finish the job and vote for this measure,” he said — would help end years of acrimonious debate.
Sources close to the incoming archbishop said he hoped he’d get the thorny issue of women bishops out of the way before he tackled a host of other pressing church problems — same-sex marriages, falling attendance, declining revenue and alleged sex abuse by clergy.
Opposition came largely from two groups who claimed that allowing women to hold leadership posts over men was unbiblical, and said the proposal did not contain adequate safeguards to protect parishes or priests who could not accept a woman bishop.
“We had hoped for compromise — but the provision being made for us in the draft measure comes nowhere near what we need,” wrote the Rev. Rod Thomas of the group Reform and the Rev. Canon Simon Killwick, a leading Anglo-Catholic opponent of women bishops, in a Nov. 16 letter to The Times newspaper.
Claiming the support of 325 priests in the Church of England, the two men said allowing women bishops “will do much more harm in the long term and will lead irrevocably to deep fractures appearing within the Church.”
There are around 3,000 actively serving women priests in the Church of England — roughly 40 percent of all clergy. More than 70 percent of church membership is female.
American-born Christina Rees, who is a member of General Synod and the 19-member Archbishops’ Council, warned that not allowing women full leadership in the church could lead women to throw up their hands.
“The Church doesn’t want women to be in a position of top leadership,” she said. “I think many will say, ‘Well, that’s that.’”
The Rev. Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest in Los Angeles and an outspoken supporter of gay rights within the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, said Tuesday’s vote proved why she’s never been more happy to be an Anglican “on this side of the pond.”
“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,” she said.