Finding a Way: The Church of England Votes for Women Bishops

by: Hedgehog

July 17, 2014

On Monday 14 July 2014 the General Synod of the Church of England voted to ordain women as bishops following five hours of debate. Women were first ordained as deacons from 1985 onwards, the issue of ordaining women having first appeared on the agenda at the Lambeth Conference back in 1920 (see resolutions 47-54). The first women priests were ordained twenty years ago, and now make up around one third of clergy.

The Voting Process

The General Synod (formed in 1970) is comprised of three Houses: the House of Bishops, the House of the Clergy, and the House of the Laity (representing the ordinary member). In order for a vote to pass, it needs to gain a two thirds of the vote in each of three Houses. Back when the issue was voted on in November 2012 (discussed in this post), it failed to meet the two thirds majority in the House of Laity, but was passed by both Bishops and Clergy. This time the vote passed in all three Houses. For those interested audio of Monday’s sessions are available here, here and here. The debate for women bishops began at 11.15am in the morning session. The vote result is reported as follows:

  • Bishops 37 in favour, 2 against, 1 recorded abstention
  • Clergy 164 in favour, 24 against, 3 recorded abstentions
  • Laity 153 in favour, 40 against, 8 recorded abstentions

The Issues

For traditionalist members there are numerous barriers to accepting women bishops, and they use much same arguments we see opposing the ordination of women in the LDS church. Bishops oversee a diocese, so in that sense they are more akin to our stake presidents than our bishops. A diocese is a collection of parishes. Bishops also ordain priests. Priests are responsible for parishes, and have a similar role to our bishops. Put simply, traditionalist members would in general, require to be served by a priest ordained by a male bishop, and supervised by a male bishop. Whilst there are indeed parish boundaries, these are not enforced for the attending congregation, so it is perfectly possible for a member living within the boundaries of a parish with a female priest to attend church in a neighbouring parish served by a male priest.

Some traditionalist members hope for reconciliation with the Roman Catholic church, and see ordination of women as a barrier to that goal.

Changing Minds

At the time of the 2012 vote, complex procedures had been drawn up to protect the interests of traditionalist members. This was not enough to win enough votes amongst the laity, so what changed minds? This time around things were altogether simpler, and seem to have been based on trust instead of complex procedures. In the time between the last vote, and this vote the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called in professional Christian mediators, previously involved in peace negotiations with paramilitary organisations, to bring the different factions together. The result was simply a legally binding commitment to creating space for all Anglicans to flourish within the church, and to leave the nuts and bolts decisions as to how that will work for progressive and more traditionalist members to be managed locally.

Moving Forward

There were of course, those who voted against, some of whom are predicting schism if supporters are not “as magnanimous as you said you would be”. Much has been taken on trust, and requires that that trust not be abused or broken. From the Telegraph:

“One of the most striking interventions was from Mr Vincent, a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic, who voted against in 2012. He said: “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.””

The first women bishops could be ordained by the end of the year. It is going to be interesting to observe how it all plays out, but I’m impressed that it starts with the different factions understanding each other, via mediation, and trust that each will be respected.

In closing, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby:

“The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds. Very few institutions achieve this, but if we manage this we will be living our more fully the call of Jesus Christ to love one another.”

I love this statement. I hope they manage it.

  • What are your views on the structure of the General Synod?
  • How would you feel about the general membership having a greater input in the LDS church? And how might that be achieved?
  • What do you make of the use of professional mediators?
  • How might we better model “good disagreement”? Should we?


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9 Responses to Finding a Way: The Church of England Votes for Women Bishops

  1. Kullervo on July 17, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    I think this paints a rosy caricature of the deep divisions not only in the Church of England but in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

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  2. New Iconoclast on July 17, 2014 at 8:04 PM

    I actually think that the Anglican Communion worldwide, to the extent it hasn’t blown up already, is building itself up for a splintering multi-directional schism. Devoid of divine authority from the beginning and rooted only in King Henry’s dynastic interests, its internal absurdities are quite quickly becoming apparent. In a more enlightened age, the descendants of those who adhered only due to anti-Catholic prejudice, disenchanted by the elevation to the mitre of semi-atheists like Spong and Williams, will desert in droves in search of real spiritual food.

    That said, one question that Hedgehog’s explication of the position of bishops in the Anglican-affiliated churches does raise which may be relevant to us as Latter-day Saints would be the role we might allow ordained women, should we ever ordain them. Would we, like the Strangites, limit them to certain offices in the priesthood, perhaps Aaronic only, or allow them to be elders but never high priests and so exclude them from bishoprics and stake presidencies and other “higher” offices?

    Now there’s a post-OW question we might be able to sink our teeth into! :)

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  3. Hedgehog on July 17, 2014 at 9:09 PM

    Kullervo, the post is only intended to look at the very narrow point of the vote for women bishops in the CofE. I was surprised it passed, and was interested to read what had happened in between times, which I found to be unexpected.
    So far as the wider Anglican communion goes, there are countries which have already been ordaining women as Bishops, and more conservative nations that have not.
    It is thought that the most serious opposition in the CofE already converted RC at the time women were ordained as priests.
    But as a snapshot of a particular event, I don’t think this was a rosy portrait.

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  4. Hedgehog on July 17, 2014 at 9:20 PM

    NI, schism has been predicted a long time, but somehow things keep on hanging together. The greatest risk of schism lies between the African nations and the west over lgbt issues, that said it appears to be something the current archbishop of Canterbury is determined to avoid. What a successor might do I don’t know, but the approach of Justin Welby interests me.

    On your other point, the 1920 Lambeth Conference resolution seemed in essence to be that the only office for which there was scriptural precedence for ordaining women was deacon. Took 65 years to get there though. I suppose the benefit of this bit by bit opening up of offices is that it provides the chance for women to be seen in action, and can change minds in that way.

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  5. ji on July 18, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    I shall be voting in favour today – by doing so, I am betraying what I believe, I am betraying those who trusted in me.

    That’s sad — but there was a very powerful and official effort to pressure “uneducated” members of the House of the Laity to vote the “right” way, making promises that almost certainly will not be kept.

    But that is their business, using their procedures for their church, and I wish them well.

    How would you feel about the general membership having a greater input in the LDS church? And how might that be achieved?

    I believe every person should magnify his or her calling. I am content with the opportunity to learn and share and sustain. Requiring votes on every matter and letting the loudest side win will result in factionalism and seems to me to be contrary to God’s desire for order. I do not have any desire to affect policy or practice for the general church.

    What do you make of the use of professional mediators?

    I think the professional mediators were carefully selected and knew beforehand what the expected outcome was and really worked in only one direction — they may have asked the side that paid them to make some of the promises mentioned above as a step to getting the right outcome, but I’m not sure there will be any effort to keep any of those promises. After all, the desired outcome has been achieved, and that is the often only real matter of importance in divisive matters like this.

    The promises include setting up a procedure for ensuring the place in the church of those who disagree with the decision. I hope the promises weren’t only a means to an end, to be discarded once the end is achieved. Time will tell. The constitutional fathers of the United States did something similar, and it seems to have worked out well in the long run — in the short run, though, the civil war had to happen.

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  6. ji on July 18, 2014 at 9:15 AM

    The canon isn’t officially enacted yet. It still requires the approval of both house of Parliament and the royal assent, and then the General Synod will be able to declare it officially enacted. Observers do not see any difficulty in this process.

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  7. Hedgehog on July 18, 2014 at 11:17 AM

    ji, thanks for the comments.

    “official effort to pressure “uneducated” members of the House of the Laity to vote the “right” way, making promises that almost certainly will not be kept.”

    I’m not sure that’s a fair statement. I get the sense that this Archbishop at least wants everyone to be able to get along. I think it is very interesting that a solution based on mutual respect and trust won the day when a complex list of protective procedures did not. Is it going to be difficult? Yes, and the Archbishop acknowledged that. Also I don’t think it fair to describe members of the House of Laity as uneducated.

    “Requiring votes on every matter and letting the loudest side win will result in factionalism and seems to me to be contrary to God’s desire for order.”

    I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But I see more of the principle of common consent in this. More the way it was done in the early LDS church, when a vote was a real vote rather than a ritual raising of hands.
    I think the requirement for a two third majority from all three separate Houses goes above and beyond simply the loudest side winning, and offers some protection to minority views.

    “I hope the promises weren’t only a means to an end, to be discarded once the end is achieved.”

    As do I. As do those who voted on the basis of that promise. But I find it refreshing that that hope exists at the moment. And I do think oneness is more likely to be achieved when all voices feel heard, and the emphasis is on allowing space for all to flourish rather than strict adherence to legalistic procedures.

    I don’t think anyone expects that the formalities won’t go through.

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  8. ji on July 18, 2014 at 12:10 PM

    bishops – clergy – laity
    The laity are the teeming masses, not the elite (bishops) or educated (clergy). After the last vote, everyone realized the laity had to be educated to get a pass the next time. I used “uneducated” in that context.

    I agree the archbishop seems sincere. But I have learned from American politics on divisive social issues that honesty is not the highest virtue — winning is — and some of those who were adamant and insistent on passage may be lukewarm on delivering the promise later, because that’s not where the passion is. So having made the promise as a step to win, it and now having won, it may be easy to forget the promise. Only the archbishop’s long tenure can provide any hope for the promise. Some of those who made the promise probably think of those to whom they made the promise as backwards and uneducated, and will expect them to grow up and conform rather than actually keeping the promise themselves. When the archbishop leaves office, I think the promise will, too, if it is not already solidified in a solution.

    I watched this matter with some interest, but not to make parallels with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope we never are in such asituation. Imagine the outcomes if church members had to vote on certain issues while Joseph Smith was president of the church — such voting and electioneering, to me, seem contrary to the order that I imagine our God wants. However, on a different matter cleay in the practice camp (and not in the doctrine camp), I would be intrigued to see more open invitation for discussion and exploration of possibilities. I wish we could see more of this in local settings for many of our activities and practices. Here’s a very simple example and question — in a building with only one ward or branch, could a bishop or branch president start a discussion about whether the sacrament meeting start time should be 9am or 10am without it turning into arguments and hard feelings? If we can’t handle something that simple, well, heaven protect us from a difficult matter.

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  9. Hedgehog on July 19, 2014 at 12:22 AM

    ji, I think it’s to be hoped that the promises of clergy are great deal more to be trusted than the promises of politicians, so far as politics go, I’d agree whole-heartedly with your sentiments. I think a fairer comparison might be what happened to the Episcopal church in the US when women bishops were ordained. This isn’t something I know about, so any observations you have on that would be welcome.

    On your latter point, I think it should be possible to reach a consensus without hard feelings. What it involves is having everyone together in a spirit of love and concern, listening and talking about not only what they would like, but getting to the core of why they/we feel the way they/we do. I think when we really understand why people feel the way they do, we are getting closer to truly loving and caring for each other. I think it’s when we only deal with the superficial – what we want v. what they want – that hard feelings arise. Too often though, that’s all we see in our meetings because no-one’s prepared to be vulnerable. I hope this what happened in the meetings with mediators, that the two groups were able to feel that love and understanding for each other.

    But yes, I realise for the CofE this a point where hope was key. Actions will matter, from hereon in. That was voiced very clearly.

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