Postcard from London
By John Martin
In an amazing turnaround from 20 months ago, the Church of England’s General Synod has voted overwhelmingly for women bishops. Overall 351 of the 433-member synod voted for the measure. The vote signals closure of an often-acrimonious debate that has lingered for two decades.
In the House of Laity the vote was three-quarters in favour (152-45), compared to 132-74 in 2012 (20 more in favour than the 2012 vote and 29 less against).
Some observers think a speech in the final stages of the 2012 vote tipped balance and led to defeat of the measure. This time the final speaker, a blind member who is an evangelical from Bristol, the Rev. John Spence, seemed to tip it the other way.
Directing comments to evangelical opponents, he said: “Your faith is my faith, is all of our faith, and every one of us has a vital role to ensure that the searing vision of the risen Christ is taken out into this country. … I am confident that we can walk hand in hand, and return the risen Christ to his rightful place at the centre of this country, its conscience, and its culture.” Spence won a standing ovation.
In greeting the result the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases, disagreeing. The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement.”
Fulcrum, the network of open evangelicals, said the decision “will strengthen the Church of England in its aim to spread the good news of Jesus to every corner of the country.” Conservative evangelicals mostly remained opposed, but one of their number, Philip Giddings, the chairman of the House of Laity who was influential in defeating the measure in 2012, announced early in the debate he would vote in favour.
Perhaps the most significant change has occurred among Catholic-minded members. The Catholic Group said it was “pleased that the spirit of reconciliation continued to be displayed during the debate.”
At the start of the day ordained women and supporters of the change — some dressed in pink ribbons and bow ties — queued for a seat in the public gallery to witness proceedings. Summer meetings of synod are residential and debates take place in York University’s Assembly Hall.
Behind the scenes, negotiations with the Catholic Group had satisfied its leadership “that the Church of England is committed to providing bishops and priests for our parishes enabling us to flourish in the life and structures of our Church.” They were nevertheless “deeply concerned” about the implications of the vote for Church unity.
The debate had colourful moments. Jane Bisson, a lay member for Winchester, held up a black leather Bible andurged a no vote, predicting women bishops would cause a split in the church.
A telling intervention came from Adrian Vincent, a lay Anglo-Catholic member who voted against in 2012. “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.”
Christina Rees, a longtime campaigner for women’s ministry, broke down in tears as she responded to Vincent’s intervention. Vincent made “a sacrificial decision today for the sake of the Church, he has shown his loyalty as an Anglican, and as a member of the Church of England,” she said. “I was not prepared for what he said. It absolutely stunned me.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury rose late in the debate and spoke in the forthright style that has become one of his trademarks. The legislation, he said, included a legally binding commitment ensuring that those who object to women bishops continue to flourish in the church. “You don’t chuck out family or even make it difficult for them to be at home. You love them and seek their well-being even when you disagree.”
The vote won immediate political support. Prime Minister David Cameron said it was a “great day for the Church and for equality.” His coalition partner, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, said it was a “watershed moment.”
Already there is discussion about when the first women will become bishops. Synod must complete further legislative procedures when it meets in November and the measure must be approved by Parliament and receive royal assent from the Queen.
Some suffragan bishop posts will be filled early in the new year. The first possible diocesan post is Gloucester and the person will be chosen in early January. Next in line are Oxford and then Newcastle.
It may be some time, however, before any of the top five posts with automatic seats in the House of Lords (Canterbury, York, London, Winchester, and Durham) become vacant.