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Synod affirms women bishops; debate draws mixed reactions

By Matthew Davies
[Episcopal News Service]  Ending centuries of tradition, the Church of England voted to welcome and affirm "the view of the majority of the House of Bishops that admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church" after a two-hour debate July 8 during the Church's General Synod, meeting at York University, England.

The motion was carried after a vote by houses resulted in bishops voting 31 in favor and 9 against, clergy voting 134 in favor and 42 against, and laity voting 123 in favor and 68 against.

The motion affirms only the principle of women bishops, but in order to change the Church's canons so that women can legally be appointed to the episcopate, a two-thirds majority in each house would be required. Further debate on the issue is scheduled for July 10, when a motion that addresses the process of ordaining women to the episcopate will be presented.

The full text of the motion, moved by the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, follows:

"That this Synod welcome and affirm the view of the majority of the House of Bishops that admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it and would be a proper development in proclaiming afresh in this generation the grace and truth of Christ."

Synod voted last year to remove the legal obstacles that prevent women from becoming bishops over the coming years, the first legislative step in the process.

The February 2006 meeting of General Synod received and debated two reports on Women in the Episcopate and welcomed the assessments made of the options for removing those obstacles.

During an open debate before the July 8 vote, several Synod members raised concerns about the impact such a motion could have on ecumenical relations, especially in light of recent comments from Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper at the June House of Bishops meeting when he urged the Church of England not to approve women bishops because it "would immediately impact on the question of the unity of the Church and with it the goal of ecumenical dialogue."

The full text of Kasper's address can be found at:

The Rev. Jonathan Baker from the Diocese of Oxford spoke in opposition of the motion because "Cardinal Kasper is calling us to continue on the path to full visible unity," he said. "It is only the opinion of a majority of bishops to proceed and not an intra-Anglican thing. Our Roman Catholic friends have told us not to proceed ... because it calls into question what we as Anglicans have consciously said about ourselves and how others regard us."

Although a majority of Synod members approved the motion, "our bishops are divided on this matter," Baker noted, "and it will affect the Communion of the church at every level."

Also from the Diocese of Oxford, the Rev. Moira Astin said that the process of double listening -- to God and society -- is critical, adding that the perception of the Church of England with some of her secular friends is "out of sync."

"These repeated debates where we seem to go round and round and not go forward adds to that perception," she said. "They can't understand an institution that doesn't value the leadership gifts of women ... We have accepted that there is not a problem with women being priests, so it seems odd to me that we would not accept women leadership in the episcopate as well."

The Rev. Thomas Seville of House of the Resurrection religious community in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, claimed that there should have been more time to discuss the Rochester Report -- a survey of the theological issues concerning women bishops.

"How can a church which goes back on its ecumenical relations continue to be trusted to speak the truth?" he said. "We will be perceived as untrustworthy."

Dr. Paula Gooder of the Diocese of Birmingham explained that St. Paul was dealing with very similar issues as the Church today -- the question of unity. "All Paul was trying to do was to find a way for the church to be unified; what he was not saying was that we all need to agree," she said. "We must try to find a way to be this glorious body that we are called to be, and that does not mean we have to agree with one another."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, offered clarification for why the issue of women bishops is different to women priests. "There is a theory that the bishop is the animator of mission and therefore the ordination of women as bishops becomes a slightly different question as to the ordination of women of priests," he said.

Mentioning the ecumenical implications, Williams said that the documents produced by the Anglican - Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) provide a theology that the church must return to and make sense of. "We have a remarkably rich reflection on ordination on which we have agreed," he said. "But one ARCIC document implies that future questions about the ordination of women did not belong to the essence of the nature of ministry between our two churches. Another document recognized consensus on the ordination of women."

Williams said he hopes the two churches will be able to return to their "agreed and received deposit of the vision of ordained ministry. It will still be a deposit that enables us to keep talking," he said.

Bishop N. T. Wright of Durham, who with Bishop David Stancliffe of Salisbury has produced a document responding to Cardinal Kasper, conveyed his relief that Synod was now having the beginning of a theological debate on the issue because the opportunity has not arisen since the publication of the Rochester Report. "Theological debate is vital for the integrity of the church," he said. "To do things in an Anglican way makes us authentic Anglicans, not untrustworthy."

Upholding the importance of studying Scripture in the debate, Wright said that Mary Magdalene was the first person entrusted by Jesus to tell the Good News. "The Anglican tradition needs to go back to scripture and read it afresh with respectful engagement," he said.

Bishop Peter Forster of Chester spoke against the motion also because of the ecumenical impact and that not enough debate has yet taken place.

"We seem to be going round in circles," he said. "We don't want to produce an incoherent doctrine of the church with a divided episcopate. In our increasingly global world our relationship to the Anglican Communion will be of great importance. And we have not yet engaged in women's ministry as is necessary. To pass the motion would be premature and prejudice the debate that is just beginning."

The Rev. Canon Ann Stevens of the Diocese of Southwark said the big question is really about what God might be saying. "Then we need to let our understanding of that inform the practical details later," she said. "God has been sending the Holy Spirit on women as on men right from the beginning ... The gift of leadership is there; let's allow the Holy Spirit to express it."

John Ward, a lay member from the Diocese of London, reminded Synod of Jesus' commandment to "love you neighbor as yourself."

"Love for me is unconditional love and respect for someone for whom and what they are," he said. "It's a no-brainer to restrict women's ordination. It is a fundamental failure to love that woman for who she is, and that includes her gender ... If this motion is passed, the talking and rebuilding of the trust that has been lost over the last 15 years starts now."

Sister Ann Williams from the Diocese of Durham said that she cannot recognize women's sacramental ministry because "our Lord chose twelve men to be with him -- he did not include the women. I see that as a very strong guide as to the way we move forward."

Describing women in the episcopate as one step too far, Sister Williams said that she also would not be able to accept priests who have been ordained by a woman whose orders she does not recognize.

Williams argued against Wright's claim that Mary Magdalene was the first apostle. "She was not, she was the first evangelist," she said. "She was the first to go forward with the news of the resurrection and that is how I stand here. I do not need to be ordained to do that. I ask you to resist this because it will take us one step too far."

Two amendments, one asking for the words "welcome and affirm" to be replaced with "note," and another requesting additional text that notes "the possible ecumenical implications," failed after further debate.

Immediately before the vote, Sentamu reminded Synod members that they don't have to agree on everything. "Unity is not about us agreeing on every detail but how through baptism we are bonded in Jesus Christ," he said.

Thirty years ago, the Episcopal Church's General Convention voted to admit women into the priesthood and the episcopate. Fourteen of the 38 Anglican provinces currently make provisions for women in the episcopate. At present, there are 13 active and retired women bishops and bishops-elect in the Episcopal Church and three in the Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Aotearoa, Polynesia and New Zealand, has one retired woman bishop.