Women bishops: Church of England still divided but now prepared to trust each other

The route out of the impasse was found in part through facilitated conversations, in which differences can be deeply explored and solutions sought

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So finally the Church of England may have women bishops. At the vote today, bishops and clergy members of General Synod maintained the support they had shown in November 2012 when the enabling legislation was vetoed by the laity. This time sufficient numbers of the laity switched sides to give the required two-thirds majority. What made the  difference?

It probably wasn’t the speeches on the day that changed minds. Many of them were excellent, especially before lunch, as somebody unkindly observed. But then the Synod audience knew the arguments back to front. Only one address stirred passions. This was a barnstorming speech by John Spence, who is visually impaired. He told how his eyesight had suddenly deteriorated in his thirties and had been advised that it would be difficult for him to retain his job. But he had persevered and he had succeeded by trusting that colleagues and friends would help him realise his strong desire to continue working in a senior capacity.

He urged Synod members to trust each other in the same way despite their sometimes bitter divisions.

There were other factors. The disapproval that rejection generated in November 2012 among ordinary members of the public was so overwhelming that the conservative evangelicals, who had instinctively opposed women bishops on the grounds that no biblical authority for them existed, were prepared to join an attempt to see whether a new way forward could be found.

Then searching for a route out of the impasse was substantially helped by the use of what are called facilitated conversations, in which differences can be deeply explored and solutions or safeguards sought. This technique is borrowed from the disciplines of mediation in which Archbishop Welby is expert and experienced.

A helpful decision was also taken by the House of Bishops when it drew up a statement of guiding principles that would bring comfort to the conservative evangelicals while at the same time emphasising that women bishops would enjoy precisely the same powers as men. 

They were not to be second-class bishops as had been feared when the legislation was first drafted. Thus the conservative evangelicals were promised that the Church of England remained “committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures” while future women bishops were told that they would receive “due respect and canonical obedience”.

In fact what the Church of England achieved here is noteworthy. For like so many institutions it has been struggling to overcome a lack of trust among its members.

In relation to women bishops, the questions became – how do we live with disagreement, how do we move from the legalistic to the relational, can we learn to respect difference? The Church is far from alone in facing such questions.

Andreas Whittam Smith is the First Church Estates Commissioner, as well as  one of the founders of  The Independent

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