Church of England faces backlash over rejecting women bishops

RNS photo courtesy Durham Cathedral

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) When the Church of England scuttled plans to allow women bishops on Nov. 20, incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called it “a very grim day for women and their supporters.”

Now, that grim day is turning into a church-state nightmare for Britain’s established church.

The Right Rev. Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, was named the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Right Rev. Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, was named the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

On Monday (Nov. 26), The Times of London quoted from a leaked memo to church leaders from William Fittall, secretary general of the General Synod, who called the public and political fallout “severe.”

After the unexpected defeat, the church said the process to allow women bishops would need to begin anew, and couldn’t start again until a new General Synod is seated in 2015.

According to The Times, Fittall’s memo outlined a plan that could lead to simpler legislation, such as a clause to consecrate women bishops with no provision for opponents. That measure could be put to the current synod when it meets again at the University of York next July.

“Parliament is impatient,” Fittall warned. “Unless the Church of England can show very quickly that it’s capable of sorting itself out, we shall be into a major constitutional crisis in Church-State relations, the outcome of which cannot be predicted with confidence.”

Bishop Justin Welby knocks at the doors of Durham Cathedral during his installation ceremony last year.

Bishop Justin Welby knocks at the doors of Durham Cathedral during his installation ceremony last year.

A former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, upped the ante when he called on church leaders to “rip up its rule book” and speed through the introduction of women bishops. He said it was “ridiculous” to assume that the General Synod could not reconsider women bishops until 2015.

A full 42 of the 44 dioceses of the church voted for legislation that would have made women bishops next year. There are 3,600 ordained women in the Church of England and 37 female  bishops in the worldwide Anglican Communion, including Africa’s first Anglican woman bishop, Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland, who was consecrated five days before the defeat in Britain.

Meantime, Prime Minister David Cameron has warned the church to think again – and fast – about its “very sad“ rejection of women bishops.

Chris Bryant, a Labour member of Parliament and former Anglican vicar, has proposed stripping the church’s exemption from the Equality Act of 2010, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. Bryant has also proposed denying seats to the 26 bishops who sit as “Lords Spiritual” in the House of Lords until the church changes its position on women bishops.


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Trevor Grundy


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  • I’m totally for women becoming bishops and was schocked when i heard the result of the vote, but how dare government feel it has the right to force the CofE into this decision? Is that not discriminating against one group because they’re discriminating against another? And i will not believe that, in the same circumstances, the government would try this kind of thing on the Islamic faith, or any other UK-minority religion. If the state must remain secular-which is a different topic i have different views on-then the state must leave religion alone if government (and the people) expect religion to leave the government alone.
    Looking forward to responses to this

  • JC, you are forgetting that the Church of England is the established church and that it’s top bishops are by their ordination made government leaders; the C of E has a unique position among all religious groups and English institutions. 26 bishops by virtue of their office sit in the House of Lords. The General Synod was voting on canons that would then be presented to Parliament and made into English law. With its favored position of power the C of E accepts special responsibilities. This failure to pass those canons puts the Church of England out of step with government policy relative to the role of women and is an embarassment to the government. It is a Constitutional crisis that the church and government both want to solve quickly.

  • The legislation to bring about woman bishops failed not because of outright opposition to the principle but because there was insufficient provision for those who believe that a woman can no more be a priest or bishop than a man can give birth to a baby. You may not like such people (and in the past few months the various women’s ordination pressure groups have been very shrill in their hatred), but theirs is an integrity which has been promised respect in the Church and simple generosity would allow such people room to practise their faith. Put frankly, the House of Laity seems to have been motivated by a sense of Fair Play. How do I know all this ? Because I have read the explanation of one of those who voted against (even though personally in favour of woman bishops):
    A “liberal” member of Synod explains his “no” vote on women bishops | Anglican Ink
    I voted for women priests in 1992 and I am in principle keen that we should have
    women bishops in the Church of England. But I voted against the Measure being proposed for final approval yesterday. I had two main reasons for voting no.