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Women Bishops, Finally
|by Barbara Lewis|
Although the legal obstacles to appointing women bishops are now on the verge of disappearing, the fierce opposition to the ordainment of women priests continues. In July 2005, the Church of England's General Synod, its ruling body, voted to allow the appointment of women bishops. This step follows decades of debate on women's role in the priesthood and has underscored the differences between conservatives and reformers.
The vote gained at least a two-thirds majority in all three houses of the Synod - the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. In two of the houses (Bishops and Clergy), it gained a majority of more than three to one.
The path, though, is far from clear. Following the General Synod's vote, the next stage involves drafting a 'measure' - the Church's word for a Bill. This will be discussed by the General Synod, then at a more local level before being returned to the General Synod for a vote.
In the 13 years since the church agreed to ordain women priests, 480 male priests have left the Church, though 70 have since returned and 30 have taken up paid positions, campaign groups say. Opponents maintain the exodus will be greater if the Church of England (or Anglican Church) goes ahead and creates women bishops.
There is also a lengthy procedure to negotiate. "I think we would be looking into the next decade of the 21st century before a woman might be consecrated (bishop) in the Church of England," says Reverend Elizabeth Macfarlane, who works as a curate (assistant to the parish priest) in Watford, near London.
However long the process, many say the outcome is inevitable. Christina Rees, chairperson of the campaign group, Women and the Church (WATCH), and a member of the House of Laity, says that women bishops would come about as the logical continuation of having women priests. "The passage of time and the overwhelming direction gives me the confidence that this isn't just a position of secularized western women. The theology is right," she says.
The only question is how much financial provision would have to be made for opponents, Rees says. The Anglican Church has so far paid out UK' 27.1 million (US$1=0.54 UK') to make up for lost earnings for those who have left the Church in protest. The Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Right Reverend Andrew Burnham, one of the most outspoken opponents, told the 'Sunday Times' newspaper that he would be forced to quit if Anglicans did not make proper provision for opponents of women bishops. He indicated that about 800 priests would do the same.
Rees, however, is skeptical about this figure. She says that support for women bishops is overwhelmingly high, and points to the General Synode vote as evidence.
The arguments of those opposed to women into the priesthood include the fact Jesus was male and chose only men to be his apostles. Advocates of women priests argue it is less important that Jesus was male than that he was a human being.
The formal debate goes back to 1920 when the Lambeth Conference - a convocation at Lambeth Palace in London that brings together all the Anglican bishops - first considered the issue of women's ordination, largely because a woman called Maude Royden, then one of the most popular preachers, had been denied permission to preach from a pulpit.
It was not until 1987 that the first women in the Anglican Church were ordained as deacons - the lowest order of the Church's three-fold ministry of deacons, priests and bishops. Five years later, the General Synod voted to open the priesthood to women and the first women were ordained as priests in Bristol Cathedral, southwest England, in March 1994. Now around one in four - or roughly 2,100 - of the Anglican Church's priests are women.
The Anglican Church website says that it comprises 38 self-governing churches and represents about 77 million people in more than 160 countries. But outside Britain, women priests have existed for much longer. Li Tim Oi, for example, was ordained as the first woman priest in southern China in 1944.
There are differences within various Church denominations as well. The Methodist Church admits women into all levels of its ministry. At the other extreme, the Roman Catholic Church has no women priests and has attracted some of those who left the Anglican Church in protest at their ordination.
From 1979, the campaign to include women in the priesthood of the Anglican Church was organised by the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW). Mission accomplished, the group was closed down in 1994. Two years later, WATCH was formed - a broad-based group, including men and women, lay and ordained, that is working for a Church in which women minister alongside men at every level.
Other groups include Inclusive Church, of which Reverend Elizabeth Macfarlane is a member. It advocates the full, unconditional inclusion of women and gay people from all backgrounds and people with disabilities as "a sign of the universal love of God", to quote its website.
Another organisation is the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS). The Act of Synod was voted on in November 1993 to try to placate those opposed to women's ordination, but has aroused the fury of those who favour women. Amongst other things, it established a separate class of bishops called Provincial Episcopal Visitors (PEVs, or 'flying bishops', as they are known). These bishops - Burnham is one such bishop - minister to parishes that will not accept their bishop because he has ordained women.
Dr Helen Thorne, in her doctoral study at Bristol University of the first women priests, concluded: "The Act of Synod and the provision of alternative Episcopal oversight are offensive to women because they legitimise women's exclusion and create a form of sexual apartheid by creating areas in the Church where women's ministry is unacceptable."
From her own point of view, Macfarlane says her job satisfaction is immense. "There is nothing that comes anywhere near the joy of celebrating the birth of a new member of the family at a baptism, or of seeing the people we serve grow in faith and confidence."
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