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Church of England votes to allow women bishops

The Archbishop of Canterbury at York England during historic vote
The Archbishop of Canterbury at York England during historic vote
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

After a five-hour debate the Church of England, in its General Synod, voted on Monday to include women as bishops, a move that was defeated two years ago, but now has been greeted with celebration by it supporters, according to Reuters.

The Synod’s action, which met in the northern England city of York, also was approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who told the news agency, "Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests. I am delighted with today's result."

Welby is the spiritual leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans. And, he also noted that “"Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases, disagreeing."

The issue had been contentious and the measure itself was defeated two years ago, by lay members, and it failed then to get the two-thirds votes that it needed to pass; but the divisions had their earlier start in 1992 when the same Synod voted to allow women to become priests.

Both contentiousness and division pitted traditionalists who said that women priests were in direct violation of the Bible, while supporters argued for meeting the terms of an ever-evolving modern society against decreasing congregations and the role of secularism.

Yet some church women in England, some 2,000 strong did sign a petition against the proposal to make their feelings known, both to the synod and the public.

Currently women serve as bishops in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but some of the more conservative churches, especially those in conservative countries, do not ordain them as priests.

In the United States, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (the name given after the Revolutionary War to the church) is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and one who has been a lightning rod for some conservative American Anglicans who have left the jurisdiction of The Episcopal Church, in favor of conservative bishops in other countries, such as Nigeria.

Schori was also invited by three students of the conservative, some might say, orthodox Anglican seminary, Nashotah House, in suburban Wisconsin, led notably by Terry Star so that she could “witness unity between U.S. Anglican conservatives and progressives,” but which “instead prompted a public wave of disunity—which has now been ironically (albeit tragically) tempered by the student's unexpected death,” of a heart attack, according to Christianity Today’s website.

Previously, the students had been advised by Schori not to attend the seminary, but Star’s death cast shadows over what was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation, and later created a firestorm of controversy that showed how fragile the “unity” between progressives and conservatives really was at Nashotah - albeit challenged by the invitation.

As Christianity today reported, “The invitation to preach in Nashotah’s historic chapel sparked a furious uproar among Anglican conservatives, including the resignations of a Nashotah trustee and an honorary board member,” as well as a call for the resignation of the Dean, Bishop Salmon's resignation.

And, trustee “Bishop Jack Iker wrote in his resignation announcement that he ‘could not be associated with an institution that honors her,’” and “board member Bishop William Wantland joined him, writing that he ‘will not take part in any functions at Nashotah’ nor ‘give financial support to the House as long as the present administration remains."’

The invitation, after Star’s death was extended to a non-liturgical address as Schori was not “allowed to celebrate the Eucharist. No women priest nor female bishop has ever exercised her priesthood at Nashotah's altar since its inception 172 years ago. Nashotah is one of the few places remaining in The Episcopal Church where the male priesthood takes precedence.

In the UK, when the vote was read, equality was the watchword for progressives, but for the conservatives it was a break with the apostolic tradition that only has men in the ordained ministry.

However, the church has established a solution to those that may object by creating a plan that “will create an independent official who could intervene when traditionalist parishes complain about a bishop's authority, as well as guidelines for parishes whose congregations reject women's ministry,” said Reuters.

They also reported that, “the mainly Anglo-Catholic Forward in Faith movement has said it trusts that assurances of special arrangements in the consecration of bishops to cater for its sympathisers will be honoured, and that those who vote against will have their theological convictions respected.”

Anglo-Catholics are those members of the Anglican Communion that place a historical and sacramental emphasis on traditional catholic elements of worship and practice, that were reclaimed in the late 19th century by the Oxford Movement, in the Church of England.

Allowances were made, however, as Newsweek also reported, when the Synod made “concessions for traditionalists unwilling to serve under a woman bishop, giving them the right to ask for a male alternative and to take disputes to an independent arbitrator. Though some in favor of the change worry that this may undermine female bishops’ authority, most were willing to take that risk in order to see the legislation pass.”

This change represents, despite the past controversy, and defeat, a sea-change in one of the world’s oldest Christian churches, and may not only register mega points on the progressive scale, but also may influence other Christian women to move forcefully against traditionalists, and their supporters, should they wish to do so.

That push could encourage women in the Roman Catholic Church to press again for ordination, an almost two decade push that had taken many American Catholic women to the battlefront, but which they lost, even in the seemingly simple goal to serve as women deacons, an exception, whose hope was dashed in the 1980s.

The Anglican Communion is present in 160 countries, and while diversity of thought and practice is common, both in its liturgies, and policy, most of the controversy with splinter groups has been over the ordination of gay priest and bishops, like American Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop, in 2003, in the American church.

In addition to the ordination of gay men and women priests, TEC also blesses same-sex marriages, and voted in 2012 to ordain transgender priests. Close on these heels will be same-sex marriages, now legal in states like Illinois, and growing in number across the country.

In the United Kingdom, nearly one-third of the clergy are women. It is expected, by many there, that the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Speakers Chaplain in the House of Commons may be the first Church of England female bishop, and one of a handful of priests that are invited to preach at the Queen’s chapel alongside St. James Palace, meaning, of course that she is a chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II. A native of Jamaica, she is noted both for her eloquence as well as her humility, and her parish in a tough working-class neighborhood, that is not immune to violence.

The first female bishop In the United States was another black woman, Barbara Harris who was consecrated in Boston, in 1989, and whose precedent shattering elevation caused many to take stock of the the American church and its steps toward equality.

Harris herself, now 83, said in an interview, “I think you have to have the courage of your convictions and be willing to speak them, both in preaching and in your interactions with people. I have tried to make that a hallmark of my ministry, speaking the truth in love. And I think that people have come to expect that of me and have been accepting of it.”

And, for the Rev. Kate Guistolise, an Episcopal priest of Chicago, who told me in a telephone interview, “there is a real joy in seeing the Church’s recognition of women in the ministry - in its fullest,” but she also acknowledges that “alongside the joy, there is also great responsibility.”

Adding his unequivocal support is the Rev. John David Van Dooren, rector of The Episcopal Church of the Atonement, an Anglo-Catholic parish, in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, who said, in an emailed statement, “Ordaining women bishops will be a tremendous gift to the Church. As with the ordination of women priests, it will open our future possibilities, and double the breadth of talent, and soul, within our Anglican tradition. A gift to us all.”

Twitter @dgrantchi