Has vote on women as bishops precipitated a constitutional crisis?

Newspapers in England are full of stories about whether the Church of England faces a possible constitutional crisis resulting from General Synod's failure to pass legislation last week that would have permitted women to become bishops.

Ruth Gledhill, who has seen a memo written by William Fittall, secretary general of the General Synod, writes:

The Church of England is facing a “major constitutional crisis” as a result of the fiasco last week over women bishops, according to an internal document written for the archbishops by one of their most senior staff. The Established Church must take steps in July next year to consecrate women bishops and vote them through by 2015, otherwise it risks the matter being taken out of its hands by Parliament.

Gledhill's story is behind a pay wall, but other publications have summarized it. The Huffington Post UK writes:

The Times reported that Fittall, the Church of England's most senior "civil servant" whose advice is seldom ignored, wrote the memo within 72 hours of the vote last Tuesday which saw the legislation carried in the General Synod houses of bishops and clergy but fail by six votes to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in the house of laity.

The decision has badly damaged the Church of England, Fittall wrote, describing a "sense of shock".

"Within the Church the effect on morale - particularly but not exclusively on that of female clergy - is severe," he said.

Fittall reportedly outlines a plan that would lead to simpler legislation, such as a clause to consecrate women bishops with no provision for opponents, being put to the General Synod when it meets at the University of York in July.

The Telegraph is also on the story. As is The Guardian.

Meanwhile Simon Sarmiento recommends an article from the blog Law and Religion UK to his readers at Thinking Anglicans.

And, the results of how individual members of synod voted on the legislation are now available, which means that the question of whether proponents of women as bishops who wanted better legislation helped to sink this particular resolution can now be tested. It is worth noting that Elizabeth Paver, vice chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, voted against the measure.

Comments (15)

Interesting to note that at least 32 (based on unambiguous names) lay women voted against the measure. Not a shock, but this can't all be laid at the feet of out of touch aging bald white men.

Re Dave Paisley's comment, his observation is accurate, but only as far as it goes. Patriarchy is a long standing social construct. It is not surprising that some women, indeed at one point the majority of women, are, or have been, acculturated. I would also venture to guess that its not merely aging men who support patriarchy and its socially constructed gender roles. For instance, one may observe within the context of the Canadian church, that many social (and theological) conservatives are young adults--men and women both.. There is also the phenomena of "splitting" which sees people function with gender bias in one setting, but coping very nicely in environments where sexism is not tolerated. In the end one needs to ask who is empowered and who is "disempowered" in all of this.

The blog essay Simon Saramiento recommends in Law and Religion UK offers significant context for present Church/Parliament relations. It makes it clear to me (and I'd been thinking that in the name of equity Parliament should just solve this embarrassing impasse) that church politics and polity in the UK is as difficult for an American to understand as ours for a CofE Brit. Also makes me hope that Fitall and the soon to be Archbishop can generate a church/synod fix. After reading the article, I'd say that Parliament's official power over the church doesn't actually give Parliament an effective means to solve the problem.

I think that many, if not all, of the women who voted against the measure will have done so, not because they are against women bishops, but because the measure as drafted was discriminatory, offering in effect a two-tier episcopate. The Revd Lesley Crawley blogged on this here: http://hereticsanon.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/discrimination-is-evil/

Thanks to Laura Sykes for Rev. Leslie Crawley's blog link. She's spot on. But, does anyone know of interviews with or statements by female synod delegates who voted 'no'? Have any of the female delegates gone on record in detail with that position?

It's unedifying in the extreme to see a Church body set a very high bar for the passage of a measure, have it fail to meet that bar, and then turn around and try to nullify the vote somehow. If members of Synod were not willing to abide - at least for the immediate future - by the results of this vote they should have changed the voting procedures beforehand. Haranguing those who voted against the measure makes it appear as if the Synod vote were supposed to be a mere rubber stamp of the diocesan votes; if that's so, then entrusting it to a complicated supermajority requirement was simply stupid. People not voting the way you want is not an indictment of voting.

Bill Dilworth

@Laura, I fully agree that the measure would have created a two-tier episcopate, and made it flawed. But unless I am missing something, that not what Lesley's post is about. It's expressing disappointment that the measure, flawed as it was, did not pass.

I don't see any mention in that post of women voting against the measure because it did not offer parity. It speaks of despondency that the measure did not pass, and the conclusions about the church that young people
draw because it failed. Those negative impressions aren't to do with the flaws of the measure -- the headline is the women bishops voted down, and that's what the public is reacting to.

Can you unpack this so I can understand where you see Lesley is saying the measure failed b/c it did not offer full equality?

@ BIll Dilworth. I do think that some are scratching their heads about how delegates to synod are elected. There were, if I count correctly, 13 dioceses's delegations who voted 50% or more against the measure as opposed to only a couple of negatives at the diocesan level. Such a major disparity would suggest, at least to me, that the delegate selections are clearly flawed in a number of dioceses. Sadly, it often seems to take a "disaster" like this to wake people up about looking at their processes for decision making. Perhaps some real change could come out of this. Clearly, business as usual did not cut it.

Those opposed to women bishops ran people who would vote against women bishops. The folks in opposition openly stated they were running synod candidates who would oppose the measure regardless of the vote of the Dioceses.

So the real question is how many then candidates hid or obfuscated about their position on women bishops. I suspect that the roll call vote will surprise and hurt a number of people who will think themselves hoodwinked by some of those they elected.

So in the next round of elections I would expect wise organizers to demand that people state their position on women bishops as part of the election process.

England has no Constitution in the sense that we do, each Parliament is fairly free to do as it pleases. Parliament could if it pleased them, yank the exemption the Church has from the Equalities act. But we will see.

Jeffrey, sort of like how no one thinks of abolishing the Electoral College except on those rare occasions it contradicts the popular vote.

My point is that participating in a system involving some sort of group choice mediated by a voting system means abiding by the vote. Yes, the CofE as a whole is in favor of women bishops - but (until the vote was actually taken) they were not in favor of proceeding unless a (rather ridiculously) high bar were met. The Church didnt have this voting scheme foisted upon them - they came up with it in their own. It may be flawed, but its what the group agreed to. Rather than rending their garments, pulling their hair, excoriating people who dared disagree with them, and demanding that Parliament DO SOMETHING FER GOD'S SAKE, it would behoove the majority to reexamine their voting procedures, make any changes they think necessary, and call for another vote as sopn as possible. Change the system if necessary, but abide by this vote, at least for right now.

It doesn't do anybody any good to give people a choice and then freak out when they choose differently than you.

Bill Dilworth

The powers that be set the high bar -- they can set it for majority, or 2/3 or by houses or by whole Synod -- see the Covenant debate.

I suspect the women who voted against this resolution may be fairly evenly divided between those who oppose women in the episcopacy and women who didn't want to live with even "a little bit of discrimination".

We really won't know until these women are asked.

Ann, who exactly are the powers that be, and how did they end up with the authority to set the bar? I've noticed that some of those powers have been complaining about the vote in very strong terms themselves.

Bill Dilworth

See my comment on the (previous) "Failure of the 'common good'" thread: Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans, in reviewing the votes of (specific) Laity, does NOT believe that the Measure failed due to pro-WB votes.

Yes, real women are really against ordaining women as bishops (and they're really wrong, sez I!)

JC Fisher

For the record: According to The Guardian if there were opponents to the creation second class bishops who voted against the measure they were not pivotal to the outcome.

"In spite of fears that some advocates of women bishops had contributed
to its failure out of a belief that it made too many concessions to
their opponents, the records showed the vote was comprehensively
blocked by a powerful combination of conservative evangelicals and
traditionalist Anglo-Catholics."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/26/church-radical-strategy-female-bishops-memo

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space