The Church of England has agreed that women can become bishops for the first time in its 1,500-year history.
After decades of bitter disputes within the church, a meeting of the General Synod on Monday approved legislation that would allow the first woman bishop to be selected by the end of the year. The typically somber atmosphere at the bi-annual church convocation was punctuated by hollers, applause and a shout of “brill!” despite a plea from Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, for the result of the vote to be met “with restraint and sensitivity.”
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, joined Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in celebrating the official end of almost two millennia of male superiority in the Church of England. Women can already serve as bishops in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. “I warmly welcome today’s vote formally approving women bishops—a great day for the Church and for equality,” Cameron tweeted.
Not everyone was celebrating, however. The conservative and evangelical wings of the church had succeeded in stymieing a 2012 attempt to open the most senior church posts to women. That unexpected rejection of gender equality within the church won negative headlines and widespread disapproval in Britain. The Archbishop of Canterbury resolved that there would be no repeat of that rejection and launched a campaign of persuasion and compromise to win over conservative members of the church laity.
On Monday, he succeeded in pushing that vote through but there remains a bloc, some of whom abstained, that feel the continued pace of modernization is threatening to break the church apart. “This is a slippery slope,” Reverend Andrew Symes, the executive secretary of the conservative group Anglican Mainstream, told The Daily Beast.
He said a recent move to question the church’s stance on euthanasia, its evolving position on homosexuality, and changing the traditional role of women were all part of the same slide into modern liberal mores that could force a schism in the church.
“Traditionally the church has always gone with the culture and if that takes it further and further away from what you might call orthodox Christianity at some stage some people are going to say we want to be orthodox Christians,” he said.
The fight against women bishops was led publicly by Susie Leafe, head of the Reform group, who said the church was at risk if Biblical teachings were cast aside.
“I think it’s never good to go against what the Bible says for God’s people, so I don’t think it’s going to have a good impact,” she told The Telegraph. “People look to the Church not to follow the world but to guide it.”
Despite the opposition of some diehard traditionalists, many of those who voted against female bishops in 2012 either reversed their position entirely or abstained on Monday. For such an historic change to the church, a two-thirds majority was required in all three Houses of the General Synod. That was a given among the bishops and clergy, who supported the change overwhelmingly. Among the “lay voters” (church members of are not part of the clergy), there were 152 votes in favor, 45 against, and five abstentions.
As members of the Synod filtered out of the chamber, hugs and cheers continued as some popped Champagne corks to mark the occasion. The Reverend Dr. Rosemarie Mallet, from Southwark diocese, said: “I’m absolutely joyful, thank God after 20 years of very hard work we now have a decision that can help us work for everyone in the Church and engage everybody to be part of that ministry.”