When the Church of England's parliament passed legislation in 1992 finally allowing women to become priests, as one of more than 1,000 female deacons who desperately wanted the role, Christine Allsop was elated.
"Back then I don't think I realised it would be this difficult," Allsop, now Archdeacon of Northampton, recalls. "I [was] interviewed and I rather optimistically said I thought we'd have women bishops in 10 years." Instead it has taken more than two decades to get near a point where female bishops are close to becoming a reality. Even now it could all come crashing down at the last minute. This weekend, the General Synod will meet to discuss finally approving the legislation.
The issue has crawled through at a glacial pace, as the church desperately tries to find some sort of compromise between those who are theologically opposed to the idea of female ecclesiastic leadership and those who cannot countenance passing laws that are inherently discriminatory. But at the last minute the House of Bishops – led by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York – have put the cat among the pigeons by introducing a series of amendments which effectively introduce stronger legal safeguards for those opposed to women bishops.
While few doubt that the bishops had anything but good intentions, they have potentially wrecked the entire legislation. Most of the traditionalists have said they will vote against it because it doesn't go far enough, whilst many supporters of women bishops have said they will vote no because it effectively enshrines gender discrimination within British law.
If the legislation is struck down, it cannot be retabled until November 2015, at the earliest, meaning it could be another decade before we see women in leading positions within the church.
"The House of Bishops has thrown us a curveball," says Christina Rees, a prominent pro-women bishops campaigner and General Synod member. "That's definitely what it feels like."
Women like Rees have lobbied for decades to see women bishops approved. Now they feel compelled to vote against it.
The traditionalists smell blood. For the first time in years they have a realistic chance of voting down the entire plan and ironically – if that happens – it will be done with the help of their theological foes.
Reverend Rod Thomas, the Chairman of Reform, the largest anti-women bishops voting block, has called on his supporters to vote against the bill in its entirety.Reuse content