Churchmen close ranks (again) in battle over women bishops

Anglican traditionalists plan a controversial last-ditch attempt to block their Synod's move to equality.

Twenty years after women were first allowed to become priests, the Church of England is bracing itself for a week of bitter rows over the consecration of female bishops as traditionalists gear up for a last-ditch attempt to stop full equality.

The thorny issue of whether women can hold the most senior positions in the church has dominated Anglican debates for much of the past 10 years. But next week things will come to a head as the church's General Synod – its parliament – votes on a crucial debate that is seen by many within the pro-women lobby as a last-minute attempt to scupper their progress.

Described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as "the most significant set of legislative decisions [Synod] has had to deal with for some 20 years", the issue of women bishops still threatens to tear the church in two. Previous Synods have consistently voted in favour of allowing women to become bishops, in what has been a tortuous and lengthy legislative process for a church that prides itself on welcoming a multitude of opinions. But a minority coalition of traditionalists, conservatives and Anglo-Catholics has always opposed them, believing that Jesus intended men to lead the church.

"Next week is the last opportunity we have got as a Synod to resolve the differences concerning women bishops in a way that promotes unity and does not lead to enormous disruption within the church," says Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform. "It is a potentially very significant moment."

The dissidents have demanded that the church create a separate category of male bishops who are ordained by men only, and therefore able to cater to parishioners who cannot countenance a female bishop. The pro-women lobby argue that such a move would create a two-tier system where women bishops are effectively second-class citizens within their own church. In an attempt to find a compromise and stop mass defections at a time of dwindling church attendance, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, both of whom support women bishops, have risked the wrath of liberals by throwing their support behind a controversial suggestion that would allow traditionalists to reject female leadership. Under their plans, those parishes that feel unable to be led by a woman could request oversight from a male bishop who does not serve under a female.

The same amendment was narrowly defeated in 2010 but has since been resurrected by the Bishop of Manchester, who has argued that Synod should vote on it again. In the opposite corner is the Bishop of Southwark, who has tabled a separate amendment calling on Synod to pass the legislation as it stands.

The row, often described by Synod members as "Manchester vs Southwark", will come to a head on Wednesday, with observers expecting bitter recriminations. If Southwark wins the argument, the likelihood is that women could become bishops by 2014, once the legislation passes on to Synod for final approval in July and then to Parliament. Those opposed to them would either have to leave the church or grudgingly accept their authority. If Manchester wins, the House of Bishops would be under pressure to rework the legislation and provide some sort of opt-out for dissenters.

Guessing which way Synod will vote is difficult. The Church of England prides itself on being a "big tent" that welcomes multiple opinions, and there is a strong feeling that compromises should be made to try to keep the anti-equality faction within the church.

But after two decades of female priests, many believe it is absurd to keep women away from the church's most senior positions. Church of England members are painfully aware that their refusal to allow women to become bishops runs against prevailing opinion that has outlawed such discrimination in non-religious settings. Anglicans in North America, New Zealand, Australia, Cuba and Canada already have women bishops, while Ireland and Scotland permit women bishops, although none has yet been appointed.

Among the more vocal supporters of women bishops there is little appetite for compromise. "If a female diocesan bishop must, in law, share her authority with a male bishop who does not recognise her orders, then her status and authority as a bishop would be called into question," said Hilary Cotton of Women and the Church, which has spearheaded the drive for female bishops. "This would perpetuate the sense that the church is 'not quite sure' that women are fully human and of equal value in the sight of God."

Who will be first? Leading contenders

More than 1,700 women have become clergy since the bar was lifted. Here are some of the front-runners to be first woman bishop.

Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

A fiercely bright academic, theologian and historian, she is currently a chaplain and fellow at Durham University. Initially an atheist, she converted to Christianity while studying at Cambridge.

Rose Hudson-Wilkin

One of the first crop of women to be ordained, the Jamaican-born Hudson-Wilkin has been a vocal supporter of female bishops. A vicar in Hackney and a mother of three, she was also recently appointed the first female chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Lucy Winkett

A former canon at St Paul's who served her curacy in Ilford, she is now rector of St James's Church in Piccadilly. A regular contributor to Radio 4's Thought for the Day, she is also a founder adviser to the Christian think tank Theos.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before