The Church of England’s laity has voted to reject women bishops in a move that has angered many and caused the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Doctor Rowan Williams to say the Church has “lost a measure of credibility.”
Despite the measure having been approved by the synod’s houses of bishops and clergy, Tuesday’s vote against the motion by the House of Laity was enough to end what has been over a decade’s worth of struggle for the ordination of women bishops.
While 324 synod members voted for women bishops, this was six short of the two-third majority that was needed.
The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams and his successor Rt. Reverend Justin Welby backed the measure and urged the Church to adopt the ordination of women bishops so as to avoid a potential schism between the Church’s progressive wing and its more conservative members.
While having expressed his own “personal sadness” at this failure, the usually measured Williams gave a grave warning that the Church may now seem dangerously out of step.
“We have, to put it bluntly, a lot of explaining to do.
“Whatever the motivations for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke the fact remains that a great deal of his discussion is not intelligible to our wider society.
“Worse than that it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the rends and priorities of wider society. So we have some explaining to do.
“We have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.”
Reverend Justin Welby took to Twitter to voice his own sadness, saying, “Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and co-operate with our healing God.”
The defeat is especially vexing because there had been a clause within the measure that would have allowed conservative and evangelical diocese to opt-out, in effect allowing them to choose whether they wished to elevate women priests or not. This, the opposition said, was not enough.
They argue that the role of women in the Church is an established matter of theology that the Church has no right to change this “just” because society deems equality to be an overriding interest.
Lay member Alison Ruoff said she had voted against the ordination of women bishops in order to keep the Church together.
“There are hundreds of churches in the Church of England which are standing with us and we were doing what was right for them – it’s not just me,” she said.
“This is to make sure that we can walk together as one Church of England – a broad Church, yes, but we want to be there without splits, without divisions.”
The Rev Prebendary Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical grouping Reform, said: “We have avoided what could have been a disastrous mistake for our unity and witness.”
It is not overstating things to say the Church now risks great turmoil over this defeat, not just because its progressive wing has threatened to break away from the Church, but because it now seems the Church laity has acted in a way that is out of step with the leadership and the majority of its members.
The House of Laity consists of members from each diocese of the two Provinces elected by lay members or chosen by and from the lay members of religious communities. The idea is that this gives the Church’s wider population a voice in Church matters.
However, the Guardian notes that there are concerns the laity is disproportionately conservative and that it has been populated with “special interest” groups:
According to many in the pro-women bishops majority, the laity has become more dominated by special interests- often conservative ones — since the vote to allow women to become priests in 1992. “I think what has happened over the last 20 years is that the representatives of the General Synod have become more representatives of tribes of the Church of England,” said Tony Baldry, the Conservative MP who speaks for the church in parliament. “So, Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals who come here to represent their own tribal loyalty rather than the dioceses they represent.”
Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, has remained optimistic that women bishops will be a reality within his lifetime. He contends that women bishops were not rejected in Tuesday’s vote, but rather it was the legislation that failed to find a majority consensus.
He went on to add that reports of the Church’s demise are exaggerated, saying, “This morning, people have been saying, ‘The church has committed suicide, the church is dead.’ Well, dead people don’t converse. We’ve been conversing – we’ve not committed suicide at all… And I hope I will be back some day to tell you what are the processes we are putting in motion to make sure women become bishops.”
Without any extraordinary measures, it is likely to be 2015 at the very earliest before the process of bringing about another vote can begin anew. It took twelve years for Tuesday night’s vote. Many, for the Church of England’s sake, will want action within a much shorter time frame.