Women bishops: Church of England General Synod votes 'yes'

There was immediate political support for the vote which was welcomed by all three party leaders

Centuries of institutional inequality at the most senior levels in the Church of England were swept away today after the General Synod finally voted in favour of legislation paving the way for women bishops. 

There were scenes of jubilation as Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, won an overwhelming majority for his package of measures designed to win over the support of traditionalists whilst staving off a crisis after Parliament threatened to intervene.

There were cheers from supporters in Central Hall at the University of York where the three Houses of the Synod – Bishops, Clergy and Laity - had been locked in a day of impassioned debate.

Backers of the measures – the most controversial since the ordination of women priests was passed by a single vote two decades ago – celebrated with champagne and looked forward to the prospect of the first female bishop being appointed within a matter of months.

Archbishop Welby had been prepared to drive through the change in the event of a repeat of the shock no vote from the House of Laity which blocked the move two years ago.

In the end it was not necessary after months of mediation between opposing factions delivered 95 per cent of the votes of bishops, 87 per cent of clergy and 77 per cent of the laity – far and above the two thirds needed to bring about the historic change.

READ MORE: Comment: Still divided but now prepared to trust each other

The Archbishop told the Synod that the Church had been embroiled in the “darkness of disagreement” and set on a “tortuous path” as it battled over the issue.

He warned that the future would be “hard work” and that Anglicans faced a “long period of culture change” ahead of them. Holding out an olive branch to opponents he said: “You don’t chuck out family or even make it difficult for them to be at home. You love them and seek their wellbeing even when you disagree.”

There was immediate political support for the vote which was welcomed by all three party leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron, a practising Christian, described the news as a “great day for the Church and for equality”. Nick Clegg said it was a “watershed moment”.

Reverend Lindsay Southern, from the parish of Catterick with Tunstall, North Yorkshire, was among those celebrating. “We are ecstatic,” she said. “To be at this point is really wonderful, I don't think any of us really expected that it really would go through. We're very relieved, very joyful, and I really want to go and hug a bishop," she added.

Rebecca Swinson, the youngest member of the Archbishop’s Council, said the vote paved the way for young women to take a full role in Church life.  “I’m really, really please. This is the start of something that is really great. I felt very angry last time but today we have managed to put some of that behind us” she said.

Sufficient numbers of the house of Laity – which had blocked the measure last time by six votes – accepted the five ”guiding principles” thrashed in the last 18 months providing safeguards to allow the conservative minority to  remain within the church. 

The debate continued precariously close to the deadline as 85 Synod members sought to speak.

In an at times emotionally charged atmosphere liberals and traditionalists did their best to follow Archbishop Welby’s determination that should “disagree well”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, second right, and members of the clergy arrive for the General Synod meeting at the University of York on Monday 14 July, 2014 The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, second right, and members of the clergy arrive for the General Synod meeting at the University of York However, opponents of the historic measure repeatedly denounced the move towards a female episcopacy.

The deep scars of the decades-long debate were visible with gloomy warnings of long term schism and growing irrelevancy from opposing sides.

Prudence Dailey, a member of the House of Laity from Oxford who abstained said it had been “hard to forget the amount of bile, vitriol and disapprobation heaped upon the heads of us who voted against” in the defeated measure of 2012.

Samuel Margrave of Coventry said people have been “bullied” and suffered “abuse” after voting no. He claimed that the motion would mean “the end of the Church as we know it”.

Susannah Leafe of Truro said the conservative minority had been offered few concessions during the mediation process and that there had been “veiled threats” that the General Synod faced being wound up.

But Christina Rees, one of the most high profile campaigners for women’s rights in the church, was close to tears as she paid tribute to those that had agreed to set aside their personal convictions to promote Church unity.

Andrew Godsall, Canon Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral, warned that many on the outside world continued to scoff at the Church describing the view of former journalist colleagues who said it was “about as on the ball as a dead seal.”

The approved measures will now be considered by Parliamentary and Synod committees before being passed into law in November.

The first available diocese to fall vacant will be Guildford in 2015. However church sources were unwilling to be drawn on which of the 1,781 female clergy was likely to become the first woman bishop.

However the vote will place another obstacle in the way of the Church of England’s relations with the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Prebendary David Houlding, a member of the Catholic Group on the General Synod, who voted against the legislation, said it was a “step back for ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church and that is serious.”

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