On women bishops: Who voted ‘no’ and why?

On women bishops: Who voted ‘no’ and why? November 21, 2012

To the shock of legions of mainstream reporters, the Church of England fell just short of approving the long-debated step of raising women to the Anglican episcopate.

The issue that seems to have some reporters stumped, a bit, is why the laypeople who cast these votes didn’t go along with this latest evolution in Anglican orders. Take, for example, the pretty solid report from Reuters, as offered by The Huffington Post. Here are two summary passages that contain the key material:

After hours of debate, the General Synod, the Church legislature made up of separate houses for bishops, clergy and laity, fell just short of the two-thirds majority required in all three houses to pass the measure. … The vote among lay members fell short by just four votes.

“It’s crushing for morale, senior women clergy must feel despondent and most bishops and most clergy male or female feel hugely sad and worse than sad, embarrassed and angry,” said Christina Rees, a Synod member and former chairman of the advocacy group Women and the Church. “Women bishops will come, but this is an unnecessary and an unholy delay,” she told Reuters.

The second passage is the key. Yes, careful readers will, of course, note that the progressives are once again called “reformers,” which means that, by definition, they are attempting to right a wrong. Nice neutral language, there. Not.

Women already serve as Anglican bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but the Church of England, mother church for the world’s 80 million Anglicans, has struggled to reconcile the dispute between reformers and traditionalists on whether to allow them in England.

The Church had already agreed to allow women bishops in theory but Tuesday’s vote, on provisions to be made for conservatives theologically opposed to senior women clergy, needed to be approved before female Anglican priests could be promoted to episcopal rank in England. …

More than 100 members spoke during six hours of discussion in a vast circular chamber in Church House, the Church’s central London headquarters, airing their views under a domed ceiling inscribed with a prayer to “them that endured in the heat of conflict.” The dispute centred on ways to designate alternative male bishops to work with traditionalist parishes that might reject the authority of a woman bishop named to head their diocese.

So what’s the problem here?

It is good that the story notes that the opponents of female bishops are “conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics,” because there are plenty of evangelicals who are willing to back the ordination of women to all orders.

It is not helpful that, at the end of the piece, the divisions inside the global Anglican Communion are described, in effect, as being between Anglicans in modern lands and many “Anglicans in developing countries.” That radically oversimplifies matters, especially in Africa. One could just as easily have described this as a conflict between the Communion’s rapidly shrinking liberal churches and its rapidly growing conservative ones.

The story also fails to note that taking this step would have created even more tensions between Anglicans and the ancient Christian churches of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, which do not ordain women to the priesthood and the episcopate.

Careful readers will note that the story does not, in fact, quote any person — ordained or laity — who opposed this crucial “reform,” which would lead to female bishops who would then ordain priests, male or female, that traditional Anglicans would argue have not been truly ordained. If the conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics won, where are their happy voices? Why leave them out of the story?

But here is the key question: Did the vote fail, in fact, because there were liberal Anglicans who voted against this measure because they believed it offered too much protection for conservatives? Did they oppose this measure because it did not go far enough to please the “reformers”? Meanwhile, did others who support the ordination of women vote against the measure because they did not believe it did enough to protect the traditionalists? Watch the video at the top of this post.

In other words, did the left split? Again, note that this Reuters report did say that the key “dispute centred on ways to designate alternative male bishops to work with traditionalist parishes that might reject the authority of a woman bishop named to head their diocese.”

If that was the dispute that led to the defeat of the measure, then the single most important thing this story needed to do was to explain that conflict, while quoting representative, authoritative voices on both sides of that dispute.

The bottom line: Why voted “no” and why? Was this measure defeated by a coalition of people who opposed it for very different reasons? If so, where are these crucial voices in this report?

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6 responses to “On women bishops: Who voted ‘no’ and why?”

  1. I’m here… I’ve been waiting for comments myself, because I don’t have much to say, at least not on the media aspect of this. That being said, I’ve always wished the media would ask some serious questions of both sides. Namely, I wish both sides were asked what exactly the role of the bishop is, and why it should be opened up/not opened up to women.
    I’m not sure what my opinion on the matter is, but I think both sides of the issue could gain a lot from some by moving from an issue about people (i.e. gender equality), and moving to an issue about the episcopate (i.e. what exactly is a bishop). The media might learn a lot too.

  2. I don’t get the impression that, at the end of the day the left did split on this issue, because, despite their protests and noise (which is all part of how the game is played), they had already succeeded in having the provisions watered down – clause 5.1.c, which those opposed had said was inadequate, but which they had given an indication would likely be enough to get a critical number of them to support the bill had been removed already due to the agitation of the left. What remained was a non-binding aspiration to ‘respect’ the other view’s convictions – and it was left in the hands of the bishop to decide what that would look like. So there only the most radical of those pushing for the change would vote it down under these circumstances.

    The split occurred somewhere else, among those supporters of women’s bishops who were *also* committed to ensuring that adequate provisions were made for those who opposed. This was for various reasons – ‘true liberals’ concerned to maintain CoE as a broad church, broad evangelicals who didn’t want to lose conservative evangelicals, people concerned with growing the church numerically who didn’t want to lose the two groups within the CoE seeing growth at this time (Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals), those who held that the promise made to those opposed when women’s ordination was introduced that they would never become second-class members of the CoE and that they would never be pushed out – that that promise should be kept.

    That’s the group that the efforts went into trying to stop them voting ‘no’ in the weeks leading up to synod and in the synod itself – the Archbishops and Fulcrum (liberal evangelical group) telling them to abstain rather than vote ‘no’, claims that if they did vote no the next measure would have less protections (I suppose they’d take the aspiration to respect the other view out :D), that Parliament would impose women bishops by law, playing up their desire for women bishops and the like. And those methods failed to move a critical number of those who wanted the measure, but not at any cost.

    One factor appears to have been, from reports of the speeches in Synod, the example of TEC in America and the way it has pushed its conservatives out the last ten years and then pursued them in the courts. It would seem a lot of people in the group who split and voted ‘no’ were saying, “We must not end up like TEC under any circumstances.”

    Here’s one layperson who voted for women’s ordination twenty years ago, and is committed to having women bishops, but who voted down this measure for pretty well *all* those reasons above explaining why he did this:

  3. As one of the people reporting on this, I can answer your question simply and authoritatively. The measure did not fail because “the left” split. It failed because the Right organised energetically for the elections to the House of Laity in 2010.

    There were divisions earlier this year, and in part of last year, about the concessions to be made for traditionalists. As a Catholic, you will no doubt find it hard to understand, but the traditionalists were demanding the legally guaranteed right to ignore the existence of bishops they don’t recognise. This is what’s generally understood as schism, except when pensions are at stake. I hope that you’re sufficiently consistent to welcome the sedevacantists back into communion with the Pope without requiring them to admit that he is in fact, the Pope — which would be analagous to the settlement that Anglican traditionalists want here.
    There were, as I say, liberals who felt the earlier compromise on those lines should have been rejected, and voted against it earlier. But they were not the decisive factor in this vote. We know that for two reasons: first the most prominent members of that faction all publicly called for the legislation to pass, in the debate, if they had a vote, and outside it if they did not. Secondly, when the present House of Laity was elected in 2010, the antis issued a statement claiming that they already had 77 votes there, a blocking minority. In the event, they got 74.
    I can think of two members of Synod who claim to be in favour of women bishops, but not if the whole church has to treat them as bishops. One is Tom Sutcliffe, whom you quoted. The other is Gavin Ashenden. This is a position to be distinguished from the left deviationism which said there were too many concessions to the traditionalists. So far as I know, both voted against the measure. Ashenden is a clergyman, so his vote made no difference in the context of a very large majority i the hose of clergy. Sutcliffe represents one vote. But for the measure to pass six people would have had to vote the other way. The determined anti block held steady ever since the 2010 election. Why not? that’s what they were elected to do.
    As for the duty of reporters to explain the nature of the textual dispute – I think this is simply impossible. The substantial difference between the two sides is as I have indicated. The wording of the disputed resolutions, hinging on such things as the difference between delegated and derogated authority, is opaque to understanding and to explanation.

  4. I think Andrew Brown and Francis have filled in the other two dimensions of the story behind the vote.

    A significant block of people who support the legislation believe that there never was any commitment to ensure the long-term existence of the opposing view in the CoE, only a short-term commitment to allow current bishops when the vote to allow women’s ordination occurred, to serve out their time. So there’s a debate over that question of history. For this group, eliminating the opposing view isn’t a bug it’s a feature – they want a form of the bishop legislation that will accomplish what they think the original vote was intended to accomplish – the eventual creation of a monochromatic CoE on this issue, with the dying off and expulsion of representatives from the other view from at least the clergy and bishops, and in time from the laity as well.

    Another block doesn’t particularly seek the goal of eliminating the dissenting position, but for them the integrity of the position of the women bishops must be inviolable – either due to Catholic understandings of that office, or due to views on what equality must mean. This group is also opposed to anything like what the opposing view wants – not because they want to drive them out, but because binding provisions would not accomplish the kind of bishopric for women that they want.

    So a judicious media report would need to try and cover something of the article I linked, as well as the perspectives in Francis and Andrew Brown’s comments/links. Which I think is hard.

    But given that the opposing group is saying, ‘we’ll support a bill that gives us permanent protection’ – it does seem bad media reporting to imply that that group simply refuse to support the bill. They don’t want women bishops but have said that they are prepared to go along with a bill that has binding protections for them. It is two groups on the other side that aren’t prepared to have women bishops with any substantial provisions. For them it is women bishops with nothing binding or bust.

    One can argue that everyone is taking that position they have due to their convictions, but where the inflexibility is with the groups who want women bishops – Reform and Forward in Faith (the two opposing groups) indicated in the wake of the vote their willingness to talk and work out a way forward. Fulcrum, WATCH and the like in their public statements have rather questioned the synodical system and have made no mention of talks – they want bishops and no binding provisions. And there’s no room for negotiation for them beyond that.

    I don’t think that there’s been any serious questions put to them by the media on that, and I think that is an important part of the story (not the whole, but it is important) if people are to get a fuller picture of what is behind the vote, and what will be shaping the post-vote moves in the CoE, which will likely be an attempt by one group to make negotiations occur and the other to find a way to get women bishops in less than another five years and without offering those provisions being sought.