Will Parliament Intervene?
  • Tuesday, November 20, 2012

By John Martin in London

A clear majority of General Synod members wants women bishops. So does an overwhelming majority of diocesan Synod members (42 of 44 Synods voted in favour). Rank and file church people on the whole agree. Most members of the broader British public think it’s a no-brainer.

Despite all this, the drawn-out search for a legislative formula to allow women bishops today failed to win the needed General Synod majority in favour. The Synod’s procedures require a two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses. In total 324 members voted Tuesday to approve the legislation and 122 voted to reject it. A handful of votes in the House of Laity meant the proposed legislation failed.

Normally the Church of England would have to wait until 2015, after the next General Synod elections, before it can reconsider defeated legislation, but a statement issued by the General Synod office held out the possibility that a procedure could be invoked to bring the matter back to Synod earlier.

“A clear majority of the General Synod today voted in favour of the legislation to consecrate women as bishops. But the bar of approval is set very high in this Synod,” said the Rt. Rev. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, after the vote.

“The House of Bishops recognises that the Church of England has expressed its mind that women should be consecrated as bishops. There is now an urgent task to find a fresh way forward to which so many of those who were opposed have pledged themselves.”

The House of Bishops will meet in emergency session early Wednesday to consider next steps. One of its fears is that Parliament may be tempted to become involved, a scenario that would upset the already delicate relationship between the Established Church and the State.

After the vote the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of his “deep personal sadness” at the result. He said the vote would not be the last word on the subject. “This issue isn’t going to go away.” For Archbishop Rowan Williams this was the last General Synod after a decade in office. He wished his successor, the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, “every blessing” in his endeavours to resolve the issue.

There was widespread dismay and anger among those who favour welcoming women to the episcopate. “I regard the outcome of today’s debate as disastrous,” said the Rt. Rev. Mike Hill, Bishop of Bristol. “Whilst I have never believed it necessary for anyone to leave the Church on the basis of the Measure before us today, others clearly took another view.”

The Rt. Rev. Christopher Lowson, Bishop of Lincoln, said this was “a very dark day for the church.” It “calls for a broad review of how General Synod members are elected. The church has suffered a serious credibility problem while it worked on the legislation, and this is a setback that could cement the church’s reputation as being outdated and out-of-touch.”

The Rt. Rev. Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said Synod members “were not hearing the voices of the young, unemployed, displaced or children. What would they think of this gathering?”

Press commentators were even more acerbic. Ruth Gledhill of The Times tweeted, “The Church of England has forfeited right to speak on assisted dying — because it has just committed suicide.”

Andrew Brown, the veteran Guardian religion writer, said the Synod had acted out “a ghastly mixture of tedium and bad faith,” adding: “Everyone in the chamber understood it very well. But no one would admit to it. The Synod was bound within invisible pews, sitting in circles, gazing only at itself.”

It was a gruelling day. The Archbishop of York, in the chair, called over 100 speakers. Very little that was said has not been said many times in the Church of England’s iconic General Synod chamber.

Early in the day speakers took great care to be sensitive to the finer feelings of their opponents. By the middle of the afternoon a mood of unease seemed to take over as the majority in favour perhaps sensed that the discussion was not going their way.

At one stage the Archbishop of York upbraided members for being too long and too loud in applauding speakers. Toward the end of the marathon debate applause for speeches was of about equal measure.

Bishop Welby was an early contributor to the debate. It was “time to finish the job,” he said. The legislation before the Synod was “as good as we can get.” His assurances to those opposed will be closely scrutinised in the future. He said he was “personally deeply committed … to ensuring as far as I am able that what we promise today and later in the code of conduct is carried out faithfully in spirit as well as in letter.”

The Catholic Group in Synod indicated a willingness to cooperate in a process using Welby’s mediation skills. It issued a statement calling on the House of Bishops to “reconvene the talks started in the summer between representatives of different groups, chaired by Bishop Justin Welby.”

Conservative evangelicals similarly seem prepared to work with Welby. Susie Leafe of the Diocese of Truro, who organised a petition signed by 2,200 women expressing opposition, said: “He is a good man and he is just the sort of man to lead us … to allow us all to thrive in the Church of England.”

  Yes No Abstained
Bishops 44 3 2
Clergy 148 45 0
Laity 132 74 0
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