Church of England Votes to Allow Women Bishops

Archbishop of York John Sentamu, left, speaks next to the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at the General Synod in Church House in central London November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

In a historic vote that took place Monday at the University of York, the highest governing body of the Church of England voted overwhelmingly in favor of admitting female bishops into its ranks.

The change overturns centuries of Anglican tradition in England. It required a two-thirds majority by the ruling General Synod, which is composed of the House of Bishops, House of Clergy and House of Laity.

The House of Bishops recorded 37 votes in favor, two against, and one abstention; the House of Clergy had 162 in favor, 25 against, and four abstentions; and in the House of Laity there were 152 in favor, 45 against, and five abstentions.

The church has been deeply divided over the issue for decades. The previous two times similar legislation has been brought to the table, nasty debates ensued. On Monday, however, a tone of tolerance governed the back-and-forth that took place in the synod chamber immediately prior to the vote. More than 60 leaders were given the opportunity to voice their varying opinions, and several ended their speeches with statements of respect for those who disagree.

The last time the synod voted on this issue was 18 months ago. Though the House of Bishops and House of Clergy voted to pass it, traditionalists outnumbered supporters of the change by six votes in the House of Laity. At the time, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, "the church lost a measure of credibility" over the vote.

Paula Gooder, a theologian who voted in favor of the change both times, was devastated when it did not pass in 2012. On BBC television she said of the debate then versus now, "The tone in the synod chamber last time was really difficult and very angry and hard to experience, whereas this time was much more welcoming and accepting."

The change of tone was in large part due to the addition of compromises to the legislation. The measure that passed on Monday contained concessions for traditionalists unwilling to serve under a woman bishop, giving them the right to ask for a male alternative and to take disputes to an independent arbitrator. Though some in favor of the change worry that this may undermine female bishops' authority, most were willing to take that risk in order to see the legislation pass.

Though the added concessions played a key role in changing the outcome of the vote, some voters also reported experiencing a change of heart with regard to the issue over the last 18 months. Among those who voted differently today than in 2012, is the bishop of Dorchester, Colin Fletcher. Addressing the synod prior to the vote, Fletcher explained that he used to believe, as most who oppose the legislation do, the Bible teaches that male leadership of the church is God's will. He said that he interprets scripture differently now.

Many women interpret the Bible as Fletcher once did. According to a BBC report, more than 2,000 women within the Church of England signed a petition against the change.

Explaining why she would be voting against the legislation, lay member Sarah Finch said during Monday's debate, "The pattern for church life that we find in scripture points to a God-given male leadership."

Synod member Jane Bisson of Canterbury shares Finch's view. She stood before the chamber and spoke of Mary Magdalene's status as a disciple rather than an apostle as evidence that woman's place in the church is second to man's. BBC aired a clip of her asking the audience, "Have we said that the Bible doesn't matter anymore, and it's the world that we now follow?"

But another female clergy member cited the Bible in her argument supporting the change. Jennifer Thomlinson of Chelmsford referred the synod chamber to Galatians 3:27-28, which says, "All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The Church of England, which broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, has the largest Christian denomination in Britain. It has a presence in more than 160 countries and, across them, over 80 million members.

Women bishops are already in office in a number of Anglican Communion branches in other countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, India, South Africa, Cuba and Swaziland. According to BBC, there are currently between 20 and 30 active Anglican female bishops in the world.

The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori is the current leader of the U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church. The Huffington Post reports, "Episcopalians also ordain gay priests, bless same-sex marriages and voted in 2012 to ordain transgender priests."

Oxford clergywoman Rosie Harper urged the audience to think about how the rest of the world views the church, implying that their power and visibility on the global stage comes with an added dimension of social responsibility. She mentioned the plight of women in Cairo and those abducted in Nigeria, saying that religion is often to blame. "The Church of England should make a stand for those women by voting yes today," Harper said.

To this statement, lay member Lorna Ashworth of Chichester, responded, saying that the lack of women bishops has nothing to do with the suffering of women around the world. "Those sufferings are caused by sin," according to Ashworth. She voted against the change.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu told USA Today on Monday, "This is a momentous day. Generations of women have served the Lord faithfully in the Church of England for centuries. It is a moment of joy today."

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is also "delighted" with the result. He said in a statement, "Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years [ago] with the ordination of women as priests."

When the Church of England decided in 1992 to allow women to be priests, the motion passed by only one vote. Today, about a third of the Church's clergy are women. The first female bishops in England could be appointed as early as next year.

The political establishment has expressed its support. On Twitter, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg declared this to be a "big moment for the Church of England."