WELL, we finally did it. On Monday, the General Synod approved the legislation to allow women to become bishops in the Church of England. At long last we can enrich the Church with the many gifts that women bring to the party.
About time too, you might say. Well, yes. Like many others, I celebrated on Monday night. I was absolutely delighted – relieved and joyful – that the vote went through so overwhelmingly. I know our life as a Church will be richly enhanced by having women at the top, with all they bring.
Earlier this year, along with 350 of my clergy, I was privileged to spend time with Bishop Victoria Matthews, who has been an Anglican bishop for 20 years, first in Canada, and more recently in New Zealand. She was inspirational.
To the world at large, the Church of England has been playing catch up. After all, we’ve had women priests for two decades, and it seems unthinkable that it has taken us so long. Our women clergy have had to be extremely patient.
But actually it’s not quite as simple as all that. There are those in the Church of England, albeit a very small number, who believe that women should not hold positions of leadership in the Church, some because Jesus chose only men as his disciples and others because this is out of step with our Roman Catholic friends. For them, this is a matter of conscience.
And as a Church, we genuinely want to embrace those faithful Christians who hold different views from our own. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Monday, we’re not a political party, where we throw out the people we don’t agree with. The Church is a family: we may disagree vehemently, but we have to live together.
That is why it has taken us so long to get where we are today. In November 2012, like many others, I felt utterly let down when the Synod rejected the legislation before us. It felt like a disaster. A lot of heart-searching has gone on since then, and the different groups within the Church have worked hard to understand each other.
By doing so, I think we demonstrated something powerful about handling of disagreement: that it is possible to do so in a better way than allowing anger and conflict to win the day. On Monday the tone of the debate was gracious and respectful, and the voting made it clear that the battle for hearts and minds had been won.
Today I believe we are a stronger, healthier Church as a result. The legislation still has to go through Parliament and receive Royal Assent, but we are told we can expect the first appointment of a woman bishop early next year.
With my forthcoming retirement, Oxford is likely to be one of the very first appointments of a diocesan bishop (as opposed to a less senior ‘suffragan’) open to a woman. While Oxford has a proud history of championing women in ministry, the fact that we are such a large diocese probably makes such a choice unlikely, this time at least. Most incoming Bishops of Oxford, myself included, have already served as a suffragan elsewhere.
Who knows? It is not up to me, of course. For myself, I look forward to the day when we stop talking about ‘women bishops’ in the Church of England and simply refer to ‘bishops.’
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