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Women bishops

As I sit at my desk today, I have the ‘privilege’ of being able to listen to the audio stream from the July sessions of the General Synod of the Church of England which is currently being held in York. The papers were full of comment on Saturday and Sunday after the first of two major debates on the subject of women bishops.

That first debate was on the theological principle of women bishops as Synod passed the following resolution:

“That this Synod welcome and affirm the view of the majority of the House of Bishops that admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it and would be a proper development in proclaiming afresh in this generation the grace and truth of Christ.” 

As in the Synod debate in July last year when Synod agreed ‘that the process for removing the legal obstacles to the ordination of women to the episcopate should now be set in train’, the debate and agreement that occurred this weekend is an important milestone along the way to getting our first women bishops.

The Synod may look to outsiders to move at snail’s pace, and perhaps it does, but these are complicated matters that take time to sort out and for legal issues to be unravelled and sorted. The early 1980s saw a similar ‘remove the legal obstacles’ debate about women priests and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that we finally saw women being ordained. We may be impatient for things to happen but, in the sense of process and timing, we have been here before.

As Paul Roberts notes as a member of Synod, writing helpfully on his blog about the whole women bishops situation, the voting is interesting and we are still far from women bishops being a done deal despite what all the papers may say. I won’t repeat Paul’s statistics but they are crucial and you can read them by visiting his article.

When push comes to final shove, General Synod must vote by house (bishops, clergy and laity) and in each house, the vote must carry with 75% of the votes. Currently, the house of laity are a little short of that kind of mark.

Of course, when push comes to final shove sometime around 2010 or 2011, it is highly likely that we will have a new General Synod. The next set of elections will take place in the summer of 2010 and it takes no PhD to work out that the subject of women bishops could well become THE issue – dominating what motivates those who stand for election to do so, dominating the subject matter at hustings and, no doubt, dominating things when we actually get a Synod in session.

Of course, by then, we will be another four or so years down the line with women priests, four more years down the line in discussions and debate at every level of the church from parish church council to General Synod.

So, in short, the first thing to say is don’t believe the hype. We are getting there but we still have a long way to go and there are still a great many variables that may influence the process.

On a personal level, I can’t see what much of the fuss is about. I have warmly welcomed women as priests, I am in a church with women in positions of leadership and was once part of a church where a woman was key to the leadership structures. I will warmly welcome women to the episcopate.

With my evangelical roots hat on, I don’t see good biblical evidence to exclude women from any level of leadership. Many of the oft-quoted passages look less clear cut by looking further into context and maybe one day I’ll talk about that on this blog. Certainly I believe that Christ’s demonstrative, counter-cultural attitude to women alongside what we can glean from early church practice speaks much more loudly than anything else we might look at biblically.

Today, Synod are debating next steps and trying to find ways to move forward while making provision for those that ‘in good conscience’ cannot accept women in the episcopate. I may try to blog later about what they decide. However, as much as I understand the Synod process as a sort-of-insider, I have still never managed to get a good answer to one big question.

We have had women priests for over ten years. Why did my fellow Anglicans that disagree with women in the ordained ministry not leave ten years ago and go to Rome or elsewhere back then? Of course, many did leave. Many more stayed and made use of the provisions that were made for them to avoid women in ministry and therein lies the rub.

Of course, the problem for those people now is that you might be able to avoid a women vicar. You can prevent them (via those provisions) ministering in your church, you can give them a wide berth in deaneries or diocesan functions. However, it’s pretty hard to avoid your bishop and if that bishop is a woman, such parishes and such priests have a major problem.

We made a rod for our own back ten years ago by trying to cater for those who wanted to carve out their own little ‘men only’ niche. I will hope that as the prospect of women bishops gets closer, Synod resists the urge to allow further get-out clauses and instead both welcomes and backs the introduction of women at all levels of church life with wholehearted enthusiasm.

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