In the immediate aftermath of last night’s shock vote at the General Synod, supporters of women bishops gathered in St Matthew’s, an ornate Victorian church just a stone’s throw from the hall where their campaign to rid the Church of institutional sexism had come crashing to a halt.
The atmosphere was despondent. How had things gone so wrong? Earlier that morning the pro-women’s lobby appeared confident. After 20 years of patiently waiting, the established Church - an organisation that is effectively headed by a woman in the form of the Queen - was about to vote on women bishops. Most were largely convinced that the legislation would pass. But it was simply not to be.
Nursing a conciliatory glass of wine, one senior figure in the pro-women camp summed up why the equality train had derailed. “We underestimated the Anglican desire to bend over backwards to be nice to everyone, whatever their views,” she said. “We’ve made so many compromises over the last 20 years, we’ve been so patient and yet it’s still not enough.”
Blaming Anglican niceties might sound trite, but it is key to understanding how the vote was lost. Seeing itself as a “big tent” that celebrates all sorts of different theological positions, “being nice” is a pillar of Anglicanism.
Throughout the day those opposed to women bishops gave passionate speeches calling on their fellow Anglicans to allow them more time, or come up with a new measure that would respect their views better. An overwhelming 74 per cent of the 400-plus chamber rejected that demand, but with a two-thirds majority needed in all three houses for the legislation to pass, enough waverers in the House of Laity were persuaded and the legislation was sunk.
But being nice is only half the story. For yesterday’s vote is also the culmination of a concerted and strategic campaign by conservative evangelicals to take over a sizeable chunk of the House of Laity. “If you ask me what went wrong yesterday the short answer would be at lunchtime,” explained Christina Rees, a long-term campaigner for women bishops who had begun the day optimistic. “Those sitting on the fence were being strong-armed into voting no. But the longer answer is that we lost this back in 2010.”
Two years ago the new synod was voted in. Conservative evangelicals had made a concerted effort to make sure that their candidates did well and they caught their liberal opponents napping. They won enough seats in the laity to begin threatening the third threshold. All they had to do was persuade enough voters and they could block the legislation.
Lindsay Newcombe, a Anglo-Catholic lay member, said that when it came to voting she had no idea whether they had done enough. “It was incredibly emotional,” she said. “The whole enormity of the decision we were making. I had no idea which way it would go.”
Lay member Alison Ruoff was one of the undecideds who decided to vote against the legislation. “This is to make sure that we can walk together as one Church of England,” she told the BBC. “A broad Church, yes, but we want to be there without splits, without divisions.”
If anything the Church will now become more polarised, with many pro-women supporters talking privately about abandoning any provisions for their theological opponents. Liberals will also be determined to copy the tactics of conservative evangelicals and win back seats in the laity when the next synod is voted for in the autumn of 2015.
This afternoon a small gathering of pro-women bishop supporters met outside the synod for a silent protest vigil. They carried unlit candles which they said they would only light once women can become leaders in their church. They sang the hymn “He Who Would Valiant Be” changing the third person pronouns to the feminine.
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