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Church of England moves closer to ordaining women bishops

By Matthew Davies
ENS 071205-1
[Episcopal News Service]  The Church of England moved a step closer to ordaining women as bishops this week while its General Synod, the Church's main governing body, met July 8-12 in York, England.

Bishop Tom Butler of Southwark, who opened the Synod debate, said, "I believe that there are good ecclesiological and theological reasons why women should now be able to be ordained bishop."

A motion, which passed 367 in favor and 127 against, asked Synod to consider the process for removing the legal obstacles to ordaining women bishops and invited the House of Bishops, in consultation with the Archbishops' Council, to report back to Synod in January 2006 after assessing the various options.

General Synod is made up of three houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity and regularly meets twice a year in February and July. An additional meeting can be scheduled for the Fall if necessary. In the vote on the motion the bishops were 41 in favor, 6 against, clergy 167 in favor, 46 against, and laity 159 in favor, 75 against.

Taking into account the opposition from some Church of England members, the motion also asked that specific attention be given "to the issues of canonical obedience and the universal validity of orders throughout the Church of England as it would affect clergy and laity who cannot accept the ordination of women to the episcopate on theological grounds."

The findings will be debated at the Church of England's next scheduled General Synod meeting in February 2006. However, the process is expected to take several years to complete.

According to reports, Synod members voiced various viewpoints on the issues. Bishop John Hind of Chichester told the synod that the motion was "premature and a dangerous precedent," claiming that more theological debate in the church was required before such a decision could be made. "Whatever today's outcome, our own fellowship will be further strained and ecumenical relations compromised. We are in a lose-lose situation," he said.

Christina Rees, chair of WATCH (Women and the Church), which campaigns for women's equality in the church, welcomed the synod decision, Ecumenical News International reported.

"To delay any longer would have further sapped [the church's] energies and wasted some of our most precious resources -- dedicated, gifted, experienced and faithful women," she said. "It is a brilliant result. The vote showed we are ready to move forward and that in principle our church accepts women as bishops, and that is what we are going to do. Now we are on our way."

The newly-elected Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, also welcomed the decision. "The decision of the Church in England is consistent with the decision our Church took at General Synod last year," he said. "And just as it will now take some years for the English Church to look at its legislation and where necessary amend it, we too in Australia are in that same process."

The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate. Currently, one in five Church of England priests is female.

Formal discussion and debate in the Anglican Communion began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference first considered the issue.

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

Three provinces -- the U.S. Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia -- currently have women serving as bishops. Bishop Barbara Harris, now retired suffragan of Massachusetts, became the Anglican Communion's first woman bishop after her election in 1988 and ordination in 1989.

Eleven additional provinces have approved the ordination of women bishops but have yet to appoint or elect one. One such province, the Scottish Episcopal Church, voted to accept women bishops when it met in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June 2003.

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.

The Synod concluded its meeting July 12 with Holy Communion and closing ceremonies.