YET ANOTHER painful step has been taken by the Church of England on the road to women bishops. The conclusion of its annual general synod last weekend marked solid progress. And though there are further hoops to be gone through before all necessary elements are in place, the informed view is that the church could have its first woman bishop by 2014. Ironically, the defeat of compromise proposals by the church’s two most senior figures, archbishops of Canterbury Rowan Williams and of York John Sentamu, may have blunted opposition from traditionalists.
The archbishops had proposed that, in conservative parishes of a diocese with a woman bishop, she would allow certain functions be carried out by an alternative male bishop who would have some legal independence. On its defeat a further compromise, which would have allowed diocesan bishops (male or female) to decide what provisions should be made for traditionalists, was passed with the support of traditionalists.
They did so, they said, fearing that no provision at all would be made for them in a context where it had become increasingly clear the tide at the general synod favoured women bishops. The legislation now goes to the church’s 43 dioceses, where it is expected to be approved, and will then return to general synod in 2012. If successful, it will go to Westminster for parliamentary approval and then to Queen Elizabeth for royal assent.
Meanwhile, fears raised during debates that the advent of women bishops would precipitate mass defections to the Catholic Church have receded with a growing view that such threats were never more than tactical, at least where some traditionalists were concerned.
In the Church of Ireland, there has been little discussion to date on the issue of women bishops. However, the ordination of women to the priesthood is a regular occurrence and was first approved in 1990, four years before the Church of England. Almost unnoticed, women clergy continue to scale the clerical ladder. Canon Katherine Poulton became the first female Dean of Ossory last May. Very Rev Susan Patterson became the first female dean in the church when appointed Dean of Killala in 2005. It is likely this gradual, natural rising to the top will continue. The church has shown a marked determination to avoid contentious issues since those deeply fractious debates on Drumcree at its general synods at the end of the 1990s and the beginnings of this decade.