Church vote opens door to female bishops
Synod rejects compromise deal and raises fears of split with traditionalists
Riazat Butt, religious affairs correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday July 8, 2008
Ruling General Synod throws out compromises that would have appeased opponents
The Church of England was thrown into turmoil last night over the issue of women bishops, as it rejected proposals that would have accommodated clergy strongly opposed to the historic change.
In an emotional, sometimes bitter debate lasting more than seven hours, the General Synod voted against introducing separate structures and "superbishops", to oversee parishes opposed to women bishops, because they were seen as amounting to institutionalised discrimination.
Instead, the 468 members narrowly agreed to the idea of introducing a national statutory code of practice, throwing out all compromises that would have appeased opponents of women bishops.
A code of practice has yet to be fully explored, but will not satisfy the demands of traditionalists and conservative evangelicals, who had formed an alliance to block consideration of any such code.
The Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, condemned the final vote, taken after amendments had been tabled and rejected, as "mean-spirited and short-sighted". "The manifest majority was profoundly short-sighted. At every point it could have offered reassurances, and it did not do that," he said.
In the debate, one churchman, Gerald O'Brien, told the synod there were possibilities of receiving episcopal oversight from overseas archbishops. His comments drew boos and hisses from the assembly.
Scott-Joynt criticised such threats. "We've got people talking about defection - they were clearly talking about the Global Anglican Future conference [held last month in Jerusalem, which ended with the threat of an Anglican breakaway]. We've got a lot of soul-searching to do."
He echoed the sentiments of the Bishop of Dover, the Right Rev Stephen Venner, who was in tears after he made a speech, imploring the pro-women lobby to show some generosity.
"I feel ashamed. We have talked about wanting to give an honourable place for those who disagree, and we have turned down almost every realistic opportunity. We have not even been prepared to explore the possibility of fresh expressions of dioceses or bishops. And still we talk the talk of being inclusive."
Venner was referring to the superbishops plan, which failed to win a two-thirds majority across the three houses (bishops, clergy and laity) even though more backed it than opposed it. Synod's decision infuriated the influential Anglo-Catholic wing, which wants protection from women bishops. One senior churchman, the Rev Prebendary David Houlding, said: "It's getting worse, it's going downhill very badly. It's quite clear there's a pincer movement and we're being squeezed out. There is only one way forward: a code of practice." He added: "There will be no walkout - yet."
The archbishops of Canterbury and York appeared pensive during the debate, holding their heads in their hands. There were frequent pauses for silent prayer and reflection. The synod ignored their pleas. Rowan Williams and John Sentamu wanted legislative protection rather than a voluntary code of practice. Sentamu supported plans for superbishops, while Williams wanted "more rather than less robust" legislation.
The Bishop of Durham said such a vital and sensitive debate should not have taken place a week before Lambeth, the once-a-decade gathering of the world's Anglican bishops. He called for unity amid the mood of unhappiness and disunity.
The Right Rev Tom Wright said: "There might be some things that we might eventually have to split over. This should not be one of them."
The prospect of rebellion has loomed large over the meeting in York, which ends today. Yesterday's vote means the church moves toward ordaining women bishops with a code of practice, to be drawn up for consideration by the synod in February. The code will need a two-thirds majority in each of the houses when it reaches the final vote in several years' time.
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