Bishop Justin Welby is about to become the spiritual leader of the Anglican church worldwide, but he has already faced a massive setback in his own backyard.
On Tuesday, the General Synod of the Church of England voted narrowly to reject a compromise proposal that would have allowed women to become bishops. The vote keeps the British church offside many other Anglican churches worldwide, including Canada, where women have been bishops since 1993.
The defeat came after 12 years of debate and it is certain to leave the church bitterly divided. It also came despite a passionate plea from Bishop Welby, who was nominated as the new Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this month, making him the spiritual head of Anglicans around the globe. He argued women had played a powerful role in the church and added that he was deeply committed to the proposal.
“It is time to finish the job and vote for this measure,” Bishop Welby told the gathering Tuesday before the vote. “This approach that we have before us today is, I believe, after much discussion with many people, as good as we can get. … Our will and intention are far more important than the rules.”
But it wasn’t enough. Although the motion easily won the required two-thirds majority among two groups – bishops and the House of Clergy – it fell just six votes short of that threshold in a vote among laity. All three had to support the measure by two-thirds. The defeat means the proposal won’t likely come before church leaders again until 2015. It also comes even though there are more than 3,500 female priests in Britain and nearly every diocese in the country supported the proposal.
Bishop Welby, who will officially become Archbishop next spring, had little to say after the vote. The House of Bishops, which voted 44-3 in favour, will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to figure out the next move. The debate could move to the British Parliament, which might take up the cause as a discrimination issue, especially since several bishops, including Bishop Welby, sit in the House of Lords.
“A clear majority of the General Synod today voted in favour of the legislation to consecrate women as bishops. But the bar of approval is set very high in this Synod,” said Rev. Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich. “This leaves us with a problem. Forty-two out of 44 dioceses approved the legislation and more than three-quarters of members of diocesan synods voted in favour. There will be many who wonder why the General Synod expressed its mind so differently.”
Reaction to the vote came quickly.
“We’re absolutely devastated,” Rev. Rachel Weir, chair of campaign group Women and the Church, told reporters in London. “Not just devastated on behalf of clergywomen but for the Church of England. We’ve spent 10 years working for this legislation. There’s something badly wrong with the system.”
Many feared the decision would drive many people, particularly youth, away from the church. But others said the “No” vote reflected not only the views of conservatives, who reject the notion of female bishops on scriptural grounds, but also those who felt the proposal didn’t go far enough and left too much room for compromise.
Several Canadian church leaders followed the proceedings closely and called the decision a setback.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said Jane Alexander, bishop of Edmonton. “For me, once you’ve taken the step to say that women can be in ordained positions of leadership, as deacons and priests, it follows for me that they can be bishops as well.”
Bishop Alexander, one of five female bishops in the Anglican Church of Canada, said the Canadian church debated the issue in the 1980s and came to a conclusion without much disharmony. While some opponents left for the Roman Catholic Church, the vast majority accepted the decision.
“It isn’t an issue. People are seen in terms of the ministry they provide and they are not seen in terms of their gender,” she said. “I think we’ve moved so far on that in Canada.”