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Archbishop Says Church Lost Credibility on Women Bishops

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams told the Synod, “Whatever the motivations for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society.” Photographer: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Church of England has lost credibility and has “a lot of explaining to do” after rejecting women bishops yesterday, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said.

Williams was speaking after an emergency meeting of bishops in London today to plan their next move following the governing General Synod’s rejection of a plan to allow women to join their number. While bishops and clergy voted for the change, lay Anglicans failed by six votes to give it the required two-thirds majority.

“Whatever the motivations for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society,” Williams told the Synod. “It seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society. We have some explaining to do, we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility.”

The vote was the latest stage in a process that started in 1975, when the Synod agreed that “there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood.” The church voted for women to be ordained as priests in 1992, leading some Anglicans to switch to the Roman Catholic Church. Provision for a code of practice to cater for parishes that object to women bishops on theological grounds did not go far enough to prevent further conflict, opponents said yesterday.

Vote Breakdown

The House of Bishops, one of the Synod’s three divisions, backed the measure by 44 votes to three, with the House of Clergy supporting it by 148 to 45. Even so, the proposal failed to get the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity, elected by church congregations and religious communities, with only 132 votes in favor and 74 against.

“A clear majority of the General Synod today voted in favor of the legislation to consecrate women as bishops,” Graham Jones, the Bishop of Norwich, said in an e-mailed statement after yesterday’s decision. “There is now an urgent task to find a fresh way forward.”

“This leaves us with a problem,” Jones said. “Forty-two out of 44 dioceses approved the legislation and more than three-quarters of members of diocesan synods voted in favor. There will be many who wonder why the General Synod expressed its mind so differently.”

Cameron ‘Sad’

“I’m a strong supporter of women bishops and I’m sad at the way the vote went,” Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons today. “The time is right for women bishops, the time was right many years ago, they need to get on with it and get with the program.”

The “no” vote means it won’t be possible to put new legislation on women bishops until the next General Synod comes into being in 2015, unless senior church leaders known as the “Group of Six” give permission, the church said in an e-mailed statement.

A meeting of the Synod scheduled for February may be postponed until July to enable a deal to be hammered out, Williams said. The bishops agreed that a meeting in February would be “too close for comfort,” he said.

“The idea that there’s a readily available formula just around the corner is an illusion,” Williams said. “But every day we fail to resolve this to the Church of England’s satisfaction is a day in which our credibility is diminished in the public’s eyes. We can’t afford to hang about.”

‘Personal Sadness’

Williams, who will make way for Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, as the head of the church at the end of the year after a decade in office, said he felt “a deep personal sadness” at the Synod’s failure to approve women bishops.

Opposition for some in the church is based on the belief that God intended men, rather than women, to be in leadership roles, while for others the compromise was not good enough to avoid future argument and provide for those opposed to women bishops.

Welby, who was at a hearing of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards today, used his Twitter account to express his unhappiness at yesterday’s vote.

“Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters,” he wrote. “Need to surround all with prayer and love and co-operate with our healing God.”

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