On July 14, the Church of England voted to allow female bishops.
The decision is a historic first for the church, and whether women should be ordained has been a highly polarizing issue. In 2012, a similar proposition was narrowly defeated after opposition by traditionalist members of the church.
Regardless, after a five-hour debate, the church’s governing body, the General Synod, “support for the measure was overwhelming,” according to a CoE press release.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told press, “Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years ago with the ordination of women as priests. I am delighted with today’s result.
“Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases, disagreeing.”
There has been much internal debate since female priests were approved by the Synod in 1992. (Bishops are in effect senior managers within church structure, who oversee an entire diocese rather than just one church, and are the only members of the clergy authorized to ordain priests.)
Conservatives claim that having women in authority within the church is against the Bible, while reformers argue that congregations should modernize, especially considering that church attendance is falling in increasingly secular countries such as the UK.
Within the Anglican tradition, which comprises the CoE and churches that are historically linked to it, women are already serving as bishops elsewhere, such as in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. However, most of those in developing countries still bar females from being ordained.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, “This is a watershed moment for the Church of England and a huge step forward in making our society fairer. Allowing women to become bishops is another long overdue step towards gender equality in senior positions.”
In 2012, the CoE’s bishops and clergy voted in favor of the proposition, but enough lay members opposed the idea to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass. In response, the church organized a committee dedicated to finding common ground, and in November 2013 the subsequent proposals were widely approved of in the Synod.
The CoE will create guidelines for the more conservative parishes that object to female ministry, as well as create an independent official within its ranks to mediate when traditionally-oriented churches raise objections to bishops’ authority.
One organization that was against the change was the Synod’s Catholic Group. Chairman Simon Killwick said, “While we are deeply concerned about the consequences for the wider unity of the whole Church, we remain committed to working together with all in the Church of England to further the mission of the Church to the nation.”
According to Welby, the first female bishop could be selected by early 2015.
Speaking to the Independent, he said, “Theologically, the church has been wrong not to ordain women as priests and bishops over the centuries. We got caught up in the culture over the centuries, as churches do.”
However, the CoE is less progressive in regards to marriage equality, a viewpoint that Welby shares—he said that although he has spoken with LGBT Christians, he is “not convinced” of its merits.
He said, “I was very clearly against same sex marriage when the bill came through, and the position of the Church remains unchanged on that. Our official position is completely unchanged. But we are beginning a process of shared conversations in the Church and I just want to let those take their course and not pre-empt the way we are going to emerge from those decisions.”
He also admitted, “I continue to struggle with the issue.”