The Church of England has voted at its General Synod to deny women the opportunity to serve as bishops. This was despite a compromise that allowed congregations to request a male bishop if they opposed a woman. This has plunged the church into crisis. There are dire warnings that the Anglican church has seriously harmed itself with this decision by seeming to be outdated and out of touch.
For the motion to allow the ordination of women bishops to have passed, the church’s rules required that three separate groups (bishops, clergy, and lay representatives to the Synod) each pass it by two-thirds majorities. The bishops passed it easily, 44 to 3. The clergy also passed it fairly easily by a vote of 148 to 45. Where it lost was among the laity, where the vote in favor was only 132 to 74 or just 64%. If just six laity had switched their votes, the measure would have passed.
It is an odd decision. Unlike the Catholic church that excludes women from the priesthood altogether and finds ways to justify this on doctrinal grounds, the Anglican church long ago allowed the ordination of women clergy, so this decision is a deliberate act of exclusion of women at the highest reaches of the church and is hard to understand except as a willful imposition of a glass ceiling.
The fact that it was the lay group that caused the legislation to fail does not surprise me that much. At one time I was heavily involved as a layperson in the Methodist Church that, like the Anglicans and other mainstream Protestant churches, has fairly democratic structures. As a result of my involvement, I became quite familiar with church politics and found that the clergy were often much more congenial to me than the other lay people in those church bodies. While lay members of the church were in general quite progressive on social issues, the kinds of lay people who got involved in church politics and thus got elected to its decision-making bodies tended to be some of the most rigid and doctrinaire. They were holier-than-thou, wannabee clergy, with strong views but without much theological knowledge and were far more reactionary in their outlook and often saw their role as to keep the clergy in line.
The Church of England will undoubtedly revisit this issue and the ordination of women bishops will eventually occur because modernity cannot be stopped, only slowed. The only question is how soon. The next Synod is in three years but there are efforts to get the measure approved sooner by other means.