THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN AS BISHOPS:
SOME COMMENTS ON THIS WEEK’S VOTE
I imagine most people will be aware that on Tuesday the legislation to ordain women as bishops failed to get the two-thirds majority in all three houses of the General Synod that it needed in order to become law. Although the Houses of Bishops and Clergy voted solidly in favour (93% and 74% respectively) , the vote in the House of Laity was six votes short of a two-thirds majority, with the result that the legislation fell. The normal rule is that this issue would not now be able to be considered again until a new Synod is elected in 2015, though I understand that discussions are underway to see if there is some way in which the process could be speeded up in this case, since there has been such concern over whether the vote really represented the opinion of the vast majority of lay members of the Church of England. You will find a letter from Bishop James, with his thoughts on the matter here, and you can read a transcript of the debate in Parliament here.
There has been widespread public dismay at this vote among many people, both inside and outside the church, and I share that dismay. Speaking personally, as someone who has spent my entire ministry (almost 20 years) in the shadow of the arguments around the ordination of women, this latest setback has been a huge disappointment. It is quite exhausting to think of having to go around all this yet again, especially as it seems unlikely that there is some hitherto unthought-of solution acceptable to all sides just waiting to be discovered.
I am confident that eventually women will be allowed to become bishops - the clear votes of the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, as well as the fact that 42 out of 44 Dioceses voted unequivocally in favour of it earlier this year, make that obvious - and I look forward to that day. However, I am also very sad that we now face yet more delays to this happening. I personally know a number of women priests who probably would have been bishops by now if they had been male and it is a tragedy for the Church that we have not had the benefit and the blessing of their leadership. In some cases we will now never do so as they are approaching retirement. I am also involved in the selection procedures for those who seek ordination. I have seen some extremely gifted, holy and inspiring female candidates for ministry over the years, and I am keenly aware that they are offering themselves to a Church which, at the moment, looks as if it is still not sure if it really wants them.
The continued exclusion of women from the episcopate has been greeted with shock and some ridicule by many non-churchgoers. The responses from Parliament and in the media are clear evidence of this, and it is something which should concern us greatly. While we are not called simply to ape the views of our culture, and sometimes should challenge those views even if we are criticised for it, it does not follow that simply because we are different we are therefore right. The Gospels remind us that Jesus consistently recognised and drew attention to the wisdom spoken by those outside the religious establishment of his day - foreigners, women, children, disabled people, even tax-collectors and others regarded as sinful. These were often the ones who spoke the truth the religious "insiders" needed to hear, and Jesus acclaimed them for it. We need to be just as open to hearing God's voice in those outside the church in our time: otherwise we may miss what he has to say to us through them today. There are advantages and disadvantages to being the Established Church, but I rejoice at the fact that it reminds us that we are not called to live in a bubble, but to be woven into our communities, paying attention to everyone's views.
It is important to note that it was the votes in the House of Laity which brought down this legislation, and concerns have been expressed that this body did not accurately reflect the views of the congregations it is supposed to represent. The House of Laity is elected by the Deanery Synod members in each parish, who are themselves elected at the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, at which everyone on the Church Electoral Roll has a vote. I know that our Deanery Synod members took their roles very seriously, and that many members of our congregation want very much to see women bishops in the Church of England. However, this week’s vote really highlights the importance of the voice that is given to everyone in our churches - your opinion counts, so please make it known!
If you would like to know more about the debates on women's ministry, whatever your feelings about it, the websites below may help. The first, Watch, is the website of an organisation which has been campaigning for the ordination of women and their full acceptance in the church for many years. It will be much in need of support over the coming months, so if you feel moved, please help them out! I have also included a link to the form you need to fill in to become a member if you would like to do so.
Watch (Women and the Church)
MoreWatch material on their old site
Thinking Anglicans often carries good summaries of a variety of issues in the Church of England, and links to articles in the press etc.
A very good website, run by a lay Anglican, as the name suggests, which has all sorts of information about the church, and some very good discussion of this week's vote on its blog.
The two sites below are organisations which oppose the ordination of women as priests and as bishops. I include them in the interests of balance and for information. You will have your own opinions, but obviously I do not agree with their views on the subject!
I will try to keep you informed of further developments, but please ask if you want to know anything more and feel free to get in contact if you have something you'd like to say.
Revd Anne Le Bas