Women bishops: Church's General Synod delays vote

General synod of the Church of England meeting in York on 9 July 2012 The adjournment comes after years of work on the law to introduce women bishops

The Church of England is to delay a final vote on the consecration of women bishops to allow a late amendment to be reconsidered.

The General Synod voted by 288 votes to 144 to adjourn the debate, after protests from pro-women campaigners.

They object to an amendment to the draft law allowing parishes who do not accept women bishops to request a male bishop who shares their beliefs.

The new vote is likely to happen at a special Synod session in November.

The draft law was amended by the Synod's House of Bishops in May.

It already contained a provision for parishes who object to women bishops to request that they be placed under the care of a male bishop.

But the amendment went further, specifying that the stand-in bishop should exercise their ministry in accordance with the parish's opinions on the issue.

Analysis

The two-to-one margin of the vote to adjourn the debate illustrated just how badly the bishop's compromise had backfired.

Now they will need to find another way of keeping traditionalists in the fold without alienating liberal Anglicans. It is unlikely that they will simply remove their generous concession to traditionalists and give them nothing in return.

After all, it was prompted partly by fears that the original legislation was likely barely to scrape the two-thirds majority it needed.

The alliance of "high-church" traditionalists and "low church" conservative Evangelicals remains confident that the old Anglican urge to maintain a "broad church" will ensure some sort of concession when the Synod meets again in November.

They insist that together they can still defeat the measure. It will require the cunning of Machiavelli and months of negotiation if the bishops are to find that elusive formula.

That caused uproar within the Church, as many who favour of women bishops said it embedded discrimination into the law.

'Lower the temperature'

The debate has been taking place at the second meeting of the Church's governing body this year, held at York University.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, warned that an adjournment would not be a "panacea" but would give a chance to "lower the temperature" within the Church of England over the dispute.

"When there is a reaction of real hurt and offence in the Church, Christians, and Christian pastors in particular, cannot afford to ignore it.

"If other bishops feel as I do, they will need to examine themselves and feel appropriate penitence that they did not recognise just how difficult that was going to be," he added.

The bishops of the Church of England will reconsider the amendment - known as clause 5 (1) (c) - over the summer, with the legislation set to return for final approval in November.

It was feared that the legislation, if voted on in its current form, would not have gained the necessary two-thirds majority in all three Houses of the Synod, of Bishops, Clergy and Laity, and would have fallen.

Grace and generosity

Many of the supporters of women bishops who were dismayed by the amendment believe that in practice male bishops and priests would be appointed who were in sympathy with the views of the parishes they looked after. But they object to enshrining this in law.

One group of women clergy wrote last week that the amendment sought to "plant legislation where grace and generosity would have flourished".

The Archdeacon of Hackney, the Venerable Rachel Treweek, told the General Synod it was with "deep sadness" that she was unable to vote for the Measure while it contained the clause.

What is clause 5 (1) (c) ?

Section 5 of the the draft Measure on women bishops states that the House of Bishops must draw up a code of practice on implementing the measure.

In May the House of Bishops inserted a new Clause 5 (1) (c):

It says male bishops or priests looking after objecting parishes should exercise their ministry consistently with "the theological convictions as to the consecration and ordination of women" of the parishes.

She said: "It seems clause 5 (1) (c) exists because of fear and lack of trust. That is a sad reflection on a Church that proclaims the perfect love of God."

Campaign group Women and the Church (WATCH) said in a statement it was relieved that the vote had been delayed.

The Rev Rachel Weir, Chair of WATCH, said: "We hope that there will be a thorough consultation process... so that whatever is presented to General Synod in November keeps faith with the dioceses that voted overwhelmingly for the unamended Measure".

'Unwarranted pressure'

But a statement from Anglo-Catholic opposition group Forward in Faith expressed its disappointment at the vote suspension.

"We call upon the House of Bishops to stand firm in the face of this unwarranted pressure and to return the draft Measure to the Synod in a form which will provide for the future of traditional Catholics and conservative evangelicals," it said.

The Rev Rod Thomas, leader of the conservative evangelical group Reform, said the House of Bishops had "a huge amount of work to do."

Opponents of women bishops

  • Anglicans who oppose women bishops comprise some - but not all - of those described as Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics
  • Anglo-Catholics revere the traditions and ceremonies of the Church. Some believe a woman cannot be a valid bishop and ordaining women prevents unity with the Roman Catholic Church
  • Evangelicals place great stress on the teachings of the Bible. Those who oppose women bishops say scripture requires male headship in the Church

"Unless it comes up with clear space for us to have a permanent space in the Church," he said, the legislation would fail.

The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester and chairman of the steering committee for the legislation, said before the vote it would be "nothing short of tragic and hugely damaging" to the Church's reputation if the legislation were to be voted down.

"We need to get this legislation right, we need to get it passed. If to achieve that a little more time and reflection is required, then so be it," he said.

The adjournment comes after more than 12 years of work on legislation to allow women bishops, and 20 years after the Church approved women clergy.

Dr Williams announced in March that he would stand down in December to take the position of Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge from January 2013.

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