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Church of England advances plans for women bishops

Church of England advances plans for women bishops
Legislation passes with minor amendments, heads to dioceses for approval

By Matthew Davies in York
July 12, 2010

Following years of debate, the Church of England July 12 backed legislation that paves the way for women to become bishops, much to the dismay of traditionalists who had hoped for more robust provisions for those in opposition.

Some 40 proposed amendments to an 11-clause measure were considered by General Synod, the church's main legislative body, during its July 9-13 meeting in York, but only minor changes were given the nod.

Clause 1, that reaffirms synod's will for women to be bishops, passed without debate. But the sticking point focused on Clause 2, which outlines provisions for those opposed to women bishops.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York had suggested amendments to that clause that would have enabled two bishops to exercise episcopal functions within the same jurisdiction by way of "co-ordinating" their ministries. Those amendments narrowly failed to pass on July 10, with traditionalists expressing regret and supporters of women's ordination welcoming the news.

As required by General Synod policy, all of the amendments had to be submitted in advance of the meeting, with none permitted from the floor.

Arrangements for those opposed to women's ordination will be outlined in a Code of Practice -- a guide to how the measure will be implemented -- that will be drawn up in the coming months.

Following an impromptu meeting of the church's bishops July 12, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams addressed synod, noting that further referral of the legislation to a revision committee "would not be helpful at this stage." The bishops, Williams said, "now wish to proceed with as much speed to get that work done. That work will see how a Code of Practice can enshrine the best possible provisions in light of what we have heard and discussed."

It is unclear how many people will leave the Church of England as a result of the July 12 vote, but some synod members said that defections are inevitable.

The measure will now be referred to diocesan synods, which cannot further amend it. Should a majority of diocesan synods approve the measure, the legislation is expected to return to General Synod in 18 months for final approval. An amendment was passed requiring a two-thirds majority in each house before the measure could receive final approval when it returns to General Synod.

Assuming all stages of the legislative process proceed without delay, the first woman bishop could not be consecrated until at least 2014, since the measure also would require approval by the U.K. Parliament. Parliamentary approval is necessary because the measure effectively changes English law as the Church of England is an officially established Christian church with Queen Elizabeth II as its supreme governor.

In the eleventh hour, the Rev. Simon Killwick of Manchester, chair of the Catholic Group in General Synod, was unsuccessful in urging synod to send the legislation back to a revision committee so that "we take a little more time to get it right before we send it to the dioceses."

Christina Rees, a lay member of General Synod and former chair of women-bishop advocacy group Women and the Church, or WATCH, said: "If we send this to the dioceses, we will carry on with the recognized process, which is precisely part of our synodical responsibility. The dioceses are waiting." The General Synod began its steady course toward allowing women in the episcopate when in July 2005 it passed a motion to remove the legal obstacles to ordaining women bishops.

In July 2006, synod called for the practical and legislative arrangements of admitting women to the episcopate to be explored. It also called for the formation of a legislative drafting group, "which will aim to include a significant representation of women," charged with "preparing the draft measure and amending canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles to the consecration of women to the office of bishop."

The legislative drafting group was asked to prepare a draft of possible additional legal provisions in order to "seek to maintain the highest possible degree of communion with those conscientiously unable to receive the ministry of women bishops."

At its July 2008 group of sessions, synod agreed that it was the "wish of its majority ... for women to be admitted to the episcopate" and affirmed that "special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests."

General Synod voted in February 2009 to send a draft measure on women bishops to a revision committee so it could rework the legislation.

The revision committee met 16 times since May 2009 and considered 114 submissions from members of the General Synod, and a further 183 submissions from others. In May 2010, the committee published its 142-page report, which offers a detailed analysis of the draft legislation.

In the Anglican Communion, formal discussion and debate on women's ordained ministry began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference called for the revival of the deaconess order, saying that it was "the only order of the ministry which we can recommend that our branch of the Catholic Church should recognize and use."

The first woman priest in the communion, Li Tim-Oi, was ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. In 1974, there was an "irregular" ordination of 11 women in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which officially authorized women's priestly ordination two years later.

Four provinces -- the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Australia, and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia -- currently have women serving as bishops. In addition, the extraprovincial Episcopal Church of Cuba currently has a woman serving as bishop coadjutor.

Bishop Barbara Harris, now retired suffragan of Massachusetts, was elected in 1988 and became the Anglican Communion's first woman bishop after her consecration and ordination in 1989.

The Rt. Rev. Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera, who died July 10, became the first woman Anglican bishop in Latin America when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Church of Cuba in June 2007.

The Rt. Rev. Mary Adelia McLeod, who was ordained a priest in 1980, made history on Nov. 4, 1993, when she was consecrated as bishop of the Diocese of Vermont, becoming the first woman diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion. She retired in 2001.

Eleven additional provinces have approved the ordination of women bishops but have yet to appoint or elect one.

The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate. More than 5,000 women have been ordained as priests in England since 1994 and today they represent nearly 40 percent of all clergy.

Following the synod debate July 12, Williams acknowledged that there are further stages in the process, adding that "we need to continue to look at ways of serving one another ... I hope that what emerges is a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

The General Synod is the national assembly of the Church of England which came into being in 1970 replacing an earlier body known as the Church Assembly. It continues a tradition of synodical government which, in England, has its origins in the medieval period.



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