Last Tuesday, November 20, “a day that will live in infamy” (to borrow a WWII phrase), the General Synod of the Church of England failed to approve, by a very narrow margin, a resolution authorizing the ordination of women as bishops. I say “failed to approve” rather than rejected, because of the three houses of the synod (bishops, clergy, laypeople), the first two voted substantially in favour, at levels far above the two-thirds requirement. It was in the House of Laity alone that the measure failed, by a mere six votes.
How did this happen? Four reasons have been put forward. One is that some of the laypeople who voted against were hard-line Anglo-Catholics, wary of anything that would stand in the way of eventual reunion with Rome, as if the existence in the UK of 3500 women priests were not already enough to scupper any such prospect. But many such have already left the Church of England to join the Pope’s club for disgruntled Anglicans, the Anglican Ordinariate, and peace be with them. A second is that some of the votes against came from hard-line conservative Evangelicals, or, as I think of them, “the truth people.” I use that phrase because that is how those in our diocese of New Westminster came across during the decade-long conflict about the blessing of same-sex unions: and you can’t argue with “truth” people, because, well, they have the truth–and you don’t. A third is that lay delegates to General Synod are in England elected at local deanery synods, which are notoriously ill-attended, leaving the way open for truth people to put themselves forward for election, having also perhaps brought their supporters with them to the deanery election. And the fourth reason (Lord, have mercy!) is that some voted against the measure because they didn’t want to–wait for it–hurt the feelings of those who would be upset if it passed (!).
The response of the mainstream press was immediate, consistent and critical. The Times called the day of the synod “a sad and shameful day.” The Guardian said that the church had “detonated its credibility with contemporary Britain.” The cabinet minister for equalities questioned why the church was exempt from equality legislation.
So what next? Ordinarily, a motion lost at one English General Synod cannot be voted on again until the next synod is convened, which means not until 2015. There is one regulation, however, which could move the moment of re-thinking closer, a proviso by which the so-called “group of six” (two bishops, two clergy, two laity, the officers of each synodical “house”) could, if they agreed, bring it forward again. I hope they will.
If this happens, it is very likely that the motion will be a very clear one, something along the lines of “Do you support a decision to ordain women as bishops?” rather than the compromise motion just lost, which provided for parishes which believed that Jesus didn’t want them to receive the ministrations of a female bishop to be assigned a male of the species to safeguard their orthodoxy. You can imagine what the response would have been if a decision like that had been made on racial grounds. White bishops only, please, no black, brown, green or orange ones–a fair comparison, in my view.
The compromise had been offered, of course, to win over those whose convictions prevented them from receiving the ministrations of a female bishop (or, let’s face it, as they would say, a woman purporting to be a bishop), but who were willing to let others go that route if they so chose. Now that that approach has failed, the church will only regain its self-respect and whatever fragments of respect British society is willing to return to it, if it puts forward and passes a clear and simple motion, without compromise.
So, in sum, I am glad the measure failed, done to death by infectious terminal niceness. The Anglican Church of Canada has had women as bishops since 1993, and no sky nor cathedral roof has fallen. It’s time for the Church of England to take a deep collective breath, and jump “as wholeheartedly as possible under the circumstances” (as I am sure Peter Gzowski would say if he were still with us) into the welcoming waters of the 21st century.