Evangelicals in warning over women bishops

The Church of England was facing a fresh schism tonight over its long running and frequently fraught attempts to consecrate women bishops after an influential coalition of evangelicals said they would order newly trained priests to leave the Church if it pressed ahead with the ordination of female bishops without any caveats for conservatives who are opposed to such plans.

The stark warning came in the form of an open letter on the eve of this winter’s General Synod signed by 50 ministers from Reform, a broadly evangelical coalition of ministers who are bitterly opposed to opening up the church further to female leaders.

The signatories to the letter form a small section of the church’s overall congregation. But its message will still worry senior bishops because the evangelical wing is one of the few areas that boasts growing congregations, younger worshippers and generous donors. It also represents a profound tactical shift in the way evangelicals intend to oppose women bishops.

Previously statements from the anti-women bishop lobby have largely revolved around threatening to leave the Anglican Communion altogether. This letter is intended to remind bishops of the potential financial and spiritual loss which any walkout would incur.  

Conservatives are furious that a potential compromise which might have allowed them to opt out of being led by women bishops has been shelved by the committee in charge of drawing up legislation to allow female priests into the highest positions of power within the church.

Those opposed to women bishops – broadly evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics – have been lobbying for the creation of three so-called “super flying bishops” who would have had no geographical diocese and could administer to any congregation that felt unable to worship under the leadership of a woman (something liberals are opposed to because, they argue, it would create a two tier bishop system where men were still more senior than women).  

This afternoon Synod members were told by the Bishop of Manchester, the Right Rev Nigel McCulloch, that the committee’s attempts to find a compromise had failed. Instead the Synod will be asked to vote on women bishops this summer without any opt-outs for traditionalists.

If that vote goes ahead without any conciliatory gestures to traditionalists, Reform say they will be forced to tell newly ordained priests to leave the Church of England, something which could have a profound effect because Anglicans are already struggling to attract new clergy. The rebel ministers have also said they would have to stop donating to the Church of England, pointedly reminding Synod members that their churches had contributed more than £22m to church coffers in the past decade.  Over the past decade Reform’s churches also claim to have ordained more than 180 men, 50 per cent of whom have been under the age of 30.

Reverend Rod Thomas, Reform’s chairman and the chief author of the letter, said: “At the moment we are encouraging young men to into the ordained ministry in the knowledge that they cannot be discriminated against if they hold convictions about male headship. We will be unable to do this if inadequately protective legislation is passed.”

He added: “The issue that will then arise is how to encourage these men to develop their ministries if they cannot do so within the formal structures of the Church of England. The answer must be to encourage them to undertake training for ministries outside these formal structures, although hopefully within an Anglican tradition.”

Women bishops have been appointed in Anglican churches in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States and Cuba but progress has been much slower in the Church of England. Although the majority of Synod members have repeatedly shown their determination to press ahead with the ordinations, a small but vocal minority of evangelicals, traditionalists and Anglo-Catholics are staunchly opposed, with many threatening to walk away from the Anglican Church altogether.

Some Anglo-Catholics have threatened to defect to Rome, something which the Vatican has viewed with open relish. Last October the Pope made a surprise announcement that Rome would allow Anglo-Catholics to convert and retain some of their Anglican traditions.

Liberals are growing increasingly impatient that opening up the church to women is taking so long to implement. Synod members were supposed to vote on the next stage of creating women bishops during this week’s meeting but because of the opposition from conservatives it will now have to be delayed until the summer.

Christina Rees, a synod member and chair of the pro-women’s bishop campaign group Women and the Church (Watch), said: “The delay is extremely disappointing and it shows how, when it comes to the issue of women bishops, the Synod has chosen to move very slowly. But at least that means that when we finally do see the draft legislation opening the episcopate up to women, no-one can say we haven’t left a single stone unturned to find the right solution.”

She added: “We have debated this issue prayerfully and thoughtfully for over 30 years and we are ready for this. For the past 15 years we have had women working as priests, many of whom would make some truly excellent bishops. It’s a waste and an embarrassment to the Church that the House of Bishops is still dominated by men and closed to women.”

This week’s Synod will last until Friday and should largely avoid the two most contentious issues currently dividing the church: women and gay bishops. The one potential area where conservatives could clash once more with liberals is a private motion from an evangelical lay member sending a message of support to traditionalist Anglicans in America who have formed a breakaway church in protest at the Episcopal Church’s continued consecration of gay bishops. It is unlikely to succeed but could reopen old wounds between the two bitterly opposed camps.

There will also be motions discussing the decline in religious output on the BBC, the falling number of army chaplains and the potentially harmful effect violent video games on children.