Women bishops: what all the fuss is about

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, right, talks to the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu

Last November, the Church of England’s national assembly, the General Synod, narrowly rejected proposals that would have allowed women to become bishops in the Church of England. This decision caused a national sensation, triggering parliamentary debates, and dire threats of Church disestablishment. Even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was incensed and called upon the Church to “get with the programme”. 

Today, the General Synod will choose one of four options which will provide the basis for legislation which Synod will vote on sometime in 2015. The bishops are promoting “option one” which offers even less protection for opponents of women bishops than the measure they rejected last November. This would not write the requirement for oversight by a male bishop into the law itself but rely on trust between the church authorities and those who in good conscience cannot accept the oversight of a female bishop.

The November failure may well turn out to have been a short-term victory for opponents of women bishops. Option one is expected to succeed because only a “simple majority” (i.e. over 50%) is required. The enabling legislation itself  will require a “two-thirds” majority is  as it did last November. Of course, legislation based on option one could ultimately fail when it comes to the vote two years hence. If it does, however, it will trigger a major constitutional crisis, and perhaps lead to the disintegration of the Church of England as we know it.



That the Church should be debating whether or not to ordain women as bishops at all is baffling to the vast majority of non-churchgoers. They are incredulous that in a modern democracy committed to sexual equality and human rights that any of its institutions should discriminate against half the human population in this way. They are incensed that such discrimination should be practised by the Church which has a constitutional role in government (26 of its bishops sit in the House of Lords). They are flummoxed that this should be an issue for the Church of England at all when other Anglican Churches (e.g. USA, Canada, and New Zealand) have successfully had women bishops for decades.

But opponents base their case on theological arguments, rather than modern trends. Though the arguments are complex, they tend to take one of two basic forms.
The first is known as the "male headship" argument and is mainly advanced by conservative evangelicals on the basis of the writings of the New Testament. They contend on the basis of their view of biblical authority that women should not be bishops because it is wrong for them to exercise authority over men and that there are strict limits on women exercising authority in the church.

Is it unity at all costs? Or must unity at some point give way to other important values?

The second is the "impossibility" argument which is mainly argued by those from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church. They maintain that women cannot be bishops because the episcopacy is by definition male. It is because authority to make bishops ultimately derives from the male Christ and his twelve male apostles that woman as a bishop is a theological impossibility. According to this mind-set, if a woman can't be a true bishop then she can't truly ordain priests, and any priests she does supposedly ordain, can't exercise a truly priestly ministry.

The bishops of the Church of England intervened to change the draft law precisely in order to give opponents who think like this a measure of security.

The current battle in Synod is therefore between the shoulds, the should-nots, and the cannots. And what to outsiders may look like ridiculous, out-dated, irrelevant, theological gymnastics, is really an attempt to balance the values of unity and justice within a squabbling, at times dysfunctional, family, and to reflect that balance in law.


The family analogy is perhaps a good one. At what point, it may be asked, is it right for one (or more) members of the family to exclude another for the sake of a higher principle. Is it unity at all costs? Or must unity at some point give way to other important values, arguably central to the nature and mission of the Church?

This may be a matter of supreme indifference to the vast majority of the population.

But the current travails of the Church are an opportunity to develop a good model of how to disagree well in public and reach a satisfactory solution. Failure to face up to and address these internal challenges will make the Church's mission in the real world all-but-impossible.

  • Mark Bratton is a Church of England minister and associate fellow in medical ethics and law at Warwick University