Pragmatism beats idealism in fight for women bishops

July 14, 2010

Reverend Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is Chaplain and Solway Fellow of University College, Durham. The opinions expressed are her own. –

The Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, has over the past few days given the green light to women bishops once again.

Now each diocese in the Church of England will discuss the proposed legislation, and a final vote is expected to take place in two years time. If all goes to plan, the first woman bishop in the Church of England could be consecrated in early 2014.

There is no shortage of good candidates. The Church of England now has four female Deans of cathedrals, 17 female Archdeacons, and many other senior women such as Canons and staff in theological colleges, all as able and as gifted as the men who get made bishops.

I can’t wait to attend the consecration of the first woman bishop. It will be a great joy to see the Church visibly valuing women and men equally, as Jesus did.

The process by which the Church of England changes it rules can be frustratingly slow, but it does have the advantage that it listens to everyone and tries very hard indeed to accommodate everyone.

It is now 35 years since General Synod voted, in 1975, that there was no theological objection to women’s ordination. In 1992, women were allowed to become priests but not bishops.

In 2006, Synod voted for legislation to be prepared to remove the legal barrier to women becoming bishops. The debate since then has not really been about whether to have women bishops, but about how, if at all,  the church can both have women bishops and also accommodate those who remain opposed in principle to women’s ordination.

A Revision Committee has spent the last two years preparing legislation to set out a compromise. Those who don’t want women bishops have spent the last two years saying that only a structural division – a men-only ‘church within a church’ –  will suit them.

On the other hand, those of us who are longing to see women bishops in our church have been hoping and praying that we can avoid anything that sets up a two-tier system in which women bishops are second-class bishops.

Last weekend,  Synod voted on draft legislation which represented a major compromise on all sides. Women bishops will be proper bishops, but will have to be prepared to delegate all their functions to male bishops when a parish votes to be a male-only church.

Apart from a few minor amendments, we on Synod voted overwhelmingly to send that compromise legislation to the dioceses.

Originally, I and many others had intended to try to remove the complex arrangements for those opposed to women bishops from the measure.

We wanted the simplest possible legislation,  simply saying that women could be bishops. However, as the debate proceeded most of us decided to give way on this, and to allow the compromise hammered out by the Revision Committee to stand.

This was a difficult decision, but we felt that we had reached the point where idealism needed to give way to pragmatism, and that this was the best possible compromise for all parties.

Many of those who are opposed in principle to the ordination of women have repeatedly claimed that they would have to leave if each successive amendment were lost.

This gets less and less convincing as time goes on. And by the second day of debate many of them were engaging with the detail of the compromise arrangements, suggesting minor amendments to the voting systems proposed for parishes and so on.

Tacitly accepting, in other words, that we have  indeed come up with a solution that many parishes with reservations about women’s ministry will work with.

So here’s looking forward to 2014: the year the Church of England will fully and visibly demonstrate that it values women as much as men.

Picture Credit: Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury is shown in this file picture. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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