Most Anglicans found less than expected to be thankful for this week: after years of planning, promotion, and hot debate, a popular measure that would have allowed women to serve as bishops was stymied by a small-but-just-large-enough block of conservative laity.
Women have served as priests in the Church of England since 1992, and hold a number of upper-level posts like canon and archdeacon, but the position of bishop had been blocked by a stained glass ceiling.
It still is.
A large majority of Anglican clergy supported the measure, as did most laity: a July poll showed that 74 percent of laypeople thought all church positions should be open to women as well as men, and when the measure was put before the Church’s 44 dioceses, 42 approved.
The Church’s complicated rules of governance, however, required that the measure gain a two-thirds majority from all three bodies of the General Synod. The house of bishops favored the move 44-3 (94 percent in favor). The clergy approved it 148-45 (75 percent). And the lay representatives gave it a 132-74 (64 percent) nod — but that was six votes short of approval, giving a small voting block a tremdous amount of power.
And you thought America’s electoral college could give odd results.
The defeat was especially difficult for supporter Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbiship of Canterbury, and for others who feared that the Church will lose credibility in the eyes of the British Parliament (where it has seats as the established church) and with the general public. Some think the move could spark a church-state conflict, since Anglicanism is the official state religion — but remains at odds with national laws regarding gender equality.
Williams said the Church has “a lot of explaining to do” regarding the synod’s way of doing business.
The house of bishops has reportedly held an emergency session to see if there are any options for rescuing the legislation. If they fail, it could be three years before the measure comes up again.
And those could be three tough years for a church that’s already facing very difficult times.