Moment that Mattered: The Church of England vote ‘yes’ on women bishops
“I wasn’t in the General Synod when it approved the motion on women bishops – I was on holiday in Greece. On 20th November 2012 [when the motion was initially rejected] I was there and I can honestly say it was the most depressing day of my life, so I didn’t want to be there in case it failed again.
I had been thinking and praying about it in the morning. When I saw the news on a television in a taverna I rushed back to the hotel to get my iPhone out of my suitcase. It was very exciting. In the church there was a cement ceiling, not just a glass ceiling. To have that removed is really wonderful.
The vote was enormously significant for two reasons. Firstly because it’s high time that it happened, but also because if it hadn’t gone through the church would have looked stupid. In 2012, 42 out of 44 dioceses had voted overwhelmingly in favour and yet in the General Synod six laypeople skewed it all because we needed a two-thirds majority in all three houses of the Synod. When my then-bishop went to the House of Lords the next day, he was absolutely lambasted – and rightly so – with members of the House asking him, ‘How could you let that happen?’
In religious institutions people have such strongly held beliefs, which affect their whole faith in life. So if you think having women priests is wrong, and not godly, then you’re going to speak out against it. Within the Church of England you’ve got the Anglo-Catholics who don’t want to do anything to upset Rome and the evangelicals who don’t think women should be in positions of authority over men. These are two very different reasons and there’s a sort of unholy alliance between these two extremes, which is why it’s taken so long.
Since the 2012 vote, the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has worked tirelessly with outside negotiators and reconcilers, talking to both sides and reassuring the people who were against having women bishops.
I was one of the first 32 women to be ordained as a priest on 12th March 1994 and because it was done in alphabetical order I was first up. I had been very involved in the movement for the ordination of women since 1978. We tried to apply pressure, get people elected to the Synod – we tried all sorts of different things.
Nowadays, young women train alongside men and they don’t realise the struggle we went through. We were trying to change the prevailing opinion of centuries. There were people who thought we were mad, people who thought we were evil. When a deaconness friend of mine was assisting at communion in the early 1980s, she had her hand bitten by a communicant because she was a woman.
If women are called and they have the right gifts, they should be able to go the whole way in the church. It will be a lot longer until we see the first female archbishop of Canterbury, but hopefully there will be a woman bishop by next year and more will follow.
I think the biggest challenge for them will be having the grace to accept the clergy that won’t accept them. Female bishops will have to cope with the parishes that won’t accept their authority and make provisions for male bishops to serve them.
Numbers go up and down in the church. We want to attract more young people and make the word of God and our services relevant to the modern generation without having to throw out all the wonderful things from the past. Female ordination is part of that process because it makes us less of a laughing stock in the eyes of many people. We need to reach out in love.”
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