Church on brink of schism as synod votes for women bishops

As the votes flickered up on the digital screen hanging inappropriately above the Archbishop of Canterbury it became slowly clear that the Church of England was being rent asunder.

For much of the past decade, the issue of women bishops has threatened to tear apart Britain's state religion. This weekend, it finally did in York when the general synod, the church's legislative assembly, refused to approve safeguards for the minority coalition of conservatives, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics who feel that female leadership within the church is incompatible with their beliefs.

Barring a last minute reversal today when the synod continues its discussions over how it will consecrate women bishops, the church will signal that it intends to become a place where gender discrimination at its highest levels is officially outlawed.

For supporters of women bishops, this week will be the moment the church finally began to shatter a glass ceiling that would be illegal anywhere outside a religious institution.

But the price of that victory is a communion of believers bitterly divided and shepherded by a leader whose pleas for compromise fell on deaf ears. For Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, this synod was a painful exercise in trying to bridge an unbridgeable chasm.

Were it not for five votes, it could have been a different story altogether.

In an attempt to find a middle way, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had tabled a proposal which would have created a special class of bishop to look after parishes which do not wish to have female bishops.

The surprise announcement made just weeks before synod met infuriated supporters of women bishops who argued that the amendment would legalise a discriminatory two-tier system. Others recognised it as the only way of keeping the naysayers inside the church.

The amendment received majority backing of 216 votes in favour, compared to 191 against with 9 abstentions. But it needed to win in all three of the synod's bodies – the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of the Laity. While the bishops and laity voted for the compromise, the clergy brought it down by just five votes.

For the leader of the church, it was a humiliating defeat. Of particular embarrassment, many delegates in York said in private, was that 15 bishops voted against the York and Canterbury amendment. One member of the synod said: "It's not a resigning issue but it's clear that Rowan's authority has been sorely questioned. He and John Sentamu stuck they're necks out and they lost."

But supporters of the amendment, such as the evangelical bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, praised the archbishops for trying bravely to keep the church together. "They judged that somebody had to do something otherwise we were going to destroy the church," he said.

As Anglicans spent the day contemplating their troubled future, supporters of women bishops, such as Rachel Weir, the chairwoman of Women and the Church (Watch), could barely contain their delight: "This has been an agonisingly slow journey and the church has rightly wanted to do all it could for those who find this difficult, but we are delighted that Synod has made the right decision," she said.

But even now, the creation of women bishops is far from guaranteed - especially as opponents are banking on scuppering everything in two years time. As long as no one tries to delay the legislation today (a temporary fudge that was being touted by some conservatives), the legislation on women bishops will go back to the dioceses for discussion before appearing at the general synod again for final approval. Only then will it be sent to Parliament and turned into British law.

The difficulty with final approval, however, is that all three houses have to vote in favour by a majority of two thirds. If the motion fails, it is thrown out entirely and cannot be introduced again in same synod term.

The makeup of the 484-seat synod, meanwhile, could be very different by the time final approval is asked for, if the evangelicals, conservatives and Anglo-Catholics get their way. Elections are due this October for the vast majority of the chambers seats and opponents of women bishops only need to win a third of one chamber to trip up women bishops at the last hurdle.

The number of synod members opposed outright to women bishops is a still a small minority, but the Reverend Rod Thomas, a leading figure with Reform, an alliance of evangelicals opposed to women bishops, said he believed the group would grow because of the lack of options that have been made for dissenters.

"Opposition to final approval will become crystalised because of this vote," he said. "And if we can obtain more support at the synod elections we will be more likely to secure enough opposition to stop it going through altogether."

In the meantime, opponents can continue to cause headaches with threats to leave or withdraw financial contributions to the church. On the same weekend synod was debating women bishops, a group of Anglo-Catholics were meeting a senior Catholic bishop in Leicester to discuss the Pope's invitation to them to defect to Rome.

Potential female bishops

June Osborne

Perhaps the Church of England's most senior female cleric, Osborne was one of the first women to be ordained into the priesthood and has been dean of Salisbury since 2004. At 57, time is not on her side. Bishops are expected to retire by the time they reach 70. The earliest Osborne would be consecrated, barring any further delays, is 2014.

Vivienne Faull

The first woman to lead a cathedral, 55-year-old Faull became provost of Coventry in 2000 and is now dean of Leicester. Her position officially has the same seniority as Salisbury, although Leicester is a newer diocese and is regarded as slightly less prestigious.

Lucy Winkett

At 39, Winkett is one of the youngest candidates touted as a potential future woman bishop. A former prefessional singer turned priest, she is currently Canon Pastor at St Pauls and will become rector of St James's, Piccadilly this autumn. She is a founding adviser for the think tank Theos and writes a column for the magazine Third Way.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Travel
travelFrom Notting Hill Carnival to Zombeavers at FrightFest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Service Delivery and Support Manager

£55000 - £75000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: Service Deli...

Corporate Tax Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home