The women bishops vote was a profoundly emotional experience, and it ended in disaster

Andreas Whittam Smith was among those deliberating

Andreas Whittam Smith
Tuesday 20 November 2012 20:44 GMT

If the long campaign to allow women to become bishops in the Church of England was to be thwarted, today would be the historic day. And so great were the doubts that the necessary two-thirds majority would be secured in the House of Laity, of which I am an appointed member, that I was strongly urged to attend by people who guessed which way I would vote.

I settled into my seat with keen anticipation. I knew that what I was about to witness would be a rearguard action. How skilfully would it be conducted? And how well would the captains of the main force, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and his appointed successor, the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, make their case?

Since the break with Rome in the 1530s, the Church of England has been a broad church that could accommodate Protestants and Catholics alike. In today’s debate, the inheritors of those two positions, the conservative evangelicals and the traditional Catholics (not Roman!) joined forces.

The former believe that certain men are called by God to have the formal authority to teach doctrine faithfully as they care for their congregations. This is not to say that they think women lack the understanding or ability to teach doctrine, it is just not the role God has designated for them. The Catholic wing cares much more about the role of bishops than the evangelicals, but seeing themselves as members of the “universal church” they don’t believe that the Church of England can make this change on its own. They would want to move with the Roman and Orthodox Churches on this issue.

On the whole, though, the rearguard action was not conducted by rehearsing these arguments again. The opening speaker for the objectors said they could “live” with women bishops providing there were sufficient safeguards. What they want is legal provision whereby they could be sure that they would not be obliged to receive, even indirectly, the ministrations of women bishops.

Whether such an arrangement would still be a broad church or two distinct churches sharing the same name and buildings is a moot point. What the opponents of women bishops demanded was not, however, on offer. There would be arrangements, a code of practice as yet unspecified and bags of goodwill, but no secure haven. Thus descriptions by supporters of what would result from rejection left the opponents relatively unmoved.

Rejection, the Bishop of Manchester told the Synod, would be a shock to many people and a blow to morale, particularly of women priests. It would deter able women from offering themselves for ordination. Women would feel unwelcome. Another speaker said cuttingly that rejection would mean that the Church had lower moral standards than the rest of the country. To all of which the objectors patiently and repetitiously replied that time should be taken to get the safeguards right.

The Bishop of Durham, however, made a very good speech in favour. He said that the ministry of women had contributed enormously to the life of the Church. Moreover the Church must show that it can still manage diversity of views by measures, rules, codes of practice and dispute resolution procedures. And he gave a personal commitment that as Archbishop he would faithfully carry out all that had been promised. And as the debate went on, other Church leaders gave the same undertaking.

At the same time, the atmosphere within the chamber changed. No longer was a military analogy appropriate. Gradually the interventions by synod members became more moving, more heartfelt, more a series of sermons than speeches. The vote, when it came, would be a profoundly emotional experience for many.

At 6.10pm, after more than 100 speeches, almost half by women, we were asked to vote. I voted in favour. But the two-thirds majority was not attained. The motion was lost. Disaster.

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