LONDON – The Church of England came a step closer to opening the door to women bishops on Monday after legislation cleared the revision stage.
The draft measure on women bishops was approved after a lengthy and at times impassioned debate stretching over several days in York. A last minute attempt by one traditionalist to have the draft Measure sent back to the Revision Committee for further consideration was rejected by Synod as supporters made it clear they were anxious for the legislation to move to the next stage.
The legislation will now pass to diocesan synods for consideration. If it is approved by the majority of dioceses, it will be brought back before General Synod in 18 months for the final drafting stage.
The outcome of the debate is a victory for supporters of women bishops, who have long campaigned for them since the Church of England first started ordaining priests in 1994.
Christina Rees, Synod member and prominent women bishops campaigner, said the outcome of today's debate was a "wonderful result".
"There is a wonderful sense of being in a place where the church has finally taken the decision to go to the next stage of the process," she said.
"People out in the dioceses are ready and willing to have women bishops and they are wondering why it has taken so long."
While some traditionalists said they doubted the legislation would pass at final approval stage following the defeat of the Archbishops' amendment on Saturday, Rees said she did not share their "doom and gloom."
"This is the last meeting of the current term of Synod before elections take place and there will be around a 30 percent change in membership. Who's to say Synod won't be more representative of the church by the time the measure comes back for debate?" she said.
"The current Synod is less in favor of women bishops than the church overall and it may be that the next Synod is a more representative body."
Influential evangelical theologian Elaine Storkey said the Church had come to the place where “we just have to move on.”
“We have to disagree in grace and I think we are nearly there,” she said.
The debate has upset traditionalists who say their voices went unheard as Synod voted down several amendments providing for parishes that could not in conscience accept the leadership of a woman bishop.
They included the amendment put forward by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York that would have allowed for “co-ordinate jurisdiction” by a female diocesan bishop and a male nominated bishop, as well as amendments proposing the transfer of jurisdiction and the creation of separate dioceses for opponents.
Some members of Synod have already declared their intentions to leave the Church of England as they are unhappy with existing provisions contained within the draft measure. The provisions require that a female diocesan bishop make a scheme containing arrangements for the exercise of certain episcopal duties by a male bishop where this has been requested by a traditionalist parish.
It is believed that some Anglo-Catholics will make the move to the Roman Catholic Church, after the Pope invited them to join the Catholic fold earlier this year. Traditionalist evangelical parishes may seek the oversight of a sympathetic bishop.
The Rev. Preb David Houlding, Synod member and Master of the Society of the Holy Cross, said there was “despair” among the Anglo-Catholic society’s English members.
He said: “What we have before us in this measure does not in any way provide for people like myself. It’s not just a case of not meeting the mark, it simply doesn’t understand the theological position we hold and this, therefore, is for me and so many friends a moment of real crisis. There is real hardship right now in what is going on ... I don’t have a lot of hope for the future for the moment.”
In a surprise move, Synod voted to reject a proposal to form a hardship fund for clergy who decide to leave the Church of England following the weekend’s debate. The Revision Committee, which drafted the legislation, said there was no legal obligation for the church to provide financial support and admitted that it also did not have sufficient funds.
Summing up at the end of the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams acknowledged that many traditionalists were feeling “bruised and excluded” and that the last few days of debate had been marked by “stress and difficulty.”
He agreed, however, that it was time for the draft legislation to be sent out to dioceses for consideration and that Anglicans on both side of the divide would have to “find ways of serving one another through this no matter how challenging that may seem.” He said he hoped dioceses would regard the process of reflecting on the legislation as “more than a mechanical task.”
The final legislation must be approved by a two-thirds majority in each of the houses of Synod – laity, clergy and bishops – before it can come into law. The first consecration of a woman bishop is not expected to take place before 2014.