Are we ready for a female bishop?

Rev Helen Hornby
Rev Helen Hornby
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It has been 20 years since the General Synod passed controversial legislation giving women the right to be Anglican priests.

And today members of the Synod – the Church of England’s parliament – are meeting to discuss current proposals for the consecration of the church’s first women bishops.

The divide between traditionalists who want male-only priests and reformers, supporting woman clergy, is nowhere more apparent than in Blackburn Diocese.

The Diocese, which covers most of the county – including Preston – has one of the lowest number of female priests at around 15, compared to other areas which have up to 70.

Members of the Diocesan Synod, representing parishes across the county, backed plans which would pave the way to having women bishops.

However members also called on the church’s leading bishops to amend current proposals to provide additional support for those unable to accept women as their bishop.

Last October, bishops, clergy and lay representatives cast their votes after lengthy debates at a meeting in Preston. Three of the four county bishops opposed proposals being debated throughout the Church of England.

But overall clergy supported current proposals by 36 votes to 34, and lay members by 33 votes to 30, with four abstentions.

A following motion, asking the national House of Bishops to amend current proposals so people unable to accept women bishops for theological reasons would be able to receive care from a male bishop not consecrated by a woman bishop, was passed by 79 votes to 55.

A Blackburn Diocese spokesman explains: “The close vote in the debate on women bishops in the Diocesan synod reflected the sharply differing opinions about this in the Church of England in Lancashire.

“This was underlined by those voting in favour of more support for opponents of women bishops.

“If this is approved nationally by the Church of England, possibly in July, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Reverend Nicholas Reade, has emphasised the need for mutual respect among those of different opinions.”

Rev Helen Hornby, Women and the Church (WATCH) spokesman for the Blackburn Diocese, says: “I’m very much in favour of women bishops. I just feel they ought to get on and do it straight away and pass the motion in its entirety without any amendments.

“The two archbishops are trying to put forward an amendment and that was voted down by the clergy in the last General Synod.

“I was very pleased and delighted that Blackburn Diocese voted in favour of having women bishops.”

WATCH says the draft legislation is a major compromise for the group, as it requires parishes to exist where women priests and bishops are not allowed to minister.

A WATCH spokesman says: “The dioceses have indicated huge support for the draft legislation and to ignore the dioceses’ enthusiastic endorsement would be extraordinary.

“The Archbishops’ Amendment would, we believe, be used by those who oppose women bishops to separate parishes from their diocesan bishop and undermine the traditional understanding of the diocesan bishop as having authority over his or her whole diocese.

“We believe it would be a disastrous precedent to allow in law that parishes could choose their own bishop on this issue, or on any other.”

Nationally, a total of 42 out of 44 dioceses voted for the draft legislation as it stands, and only nine passed following motions calling for additional provisions.

Rev Canon Fleur Green, the diocese’s adviser for women’s ministry at Blackburn Cathedral, says: “I’m obviously in favour of women bishops. I think it would be a good thing for the church but I think we are hoping and praying the General Synod can find a way so people can work together in the future.

“Forty-two out of 44 of the dioceses voted in favour of the legislation which is quite an overwhelming majority. It seems to be, if you look at the church as a whole, the way it seems to be going.”

At the time of the vote, Bishop Nicholas said: “The church is governed by the bishops in Synod, and synodical government is not about competing parties, but looking for consensus.

“That consensus for change was clearly not evident at the Diocesan Synod.

“However, it seems much clearer that the church may be ready for women bishops if the General Synod were to make adequate provision for those who in conscience cannot accept this change in the historic episcopate at this time.

“The House of Bishops has the power to change the legislation and take it back to the whole Synod. I very much hope it will.”

Fr Timothy Lipscomb, Vicar of Preston, adds: “In my opinion, if you vote for the women priests and you say they are a good idea, then those women priests should become women bishops.

“People are threatening to leave. We don’t really want anyone on either side to leave. The Church of England has always been a broad church.”