Now, the Church of England will come through this, but how damaged it will be as a result remains to be seen. Why is this vote such a disaster for the Church? There are a number of reasons.
There are reasons within the Church and in the Churches relationships with the world.
On the most basic level the General Synod has made a decision which the Church as a whole clearly rejects. The Church’s governing body is out of step with the Church membership. Out of 44 Church of England dioceses only two voted against the draft measure before the Synod. The message from the dioceses is clear - they wanted the measure to be passed. The members of General Synod are not delegates; they are free to vote in the way they choose and not obliged to follow the views of the diocese they represent; but to vote in as radically different a way they should surely need a really good reason. I don’t believe that they can have had one.
As in the dioceses so in the parishes. Surveys show clearly that there is enormous support for the ordination of women as bishops in the parishes. A huge majority of the lay people see no reason why women should be excluded from high office in the Church.
It would seem then that the House of Laity of the General Synod is not representative of the laity in the Church. This is a serious problem for the Church. It means that, on at least one issue, and perhaps on more, the Church is unable to take decisions that the vast majority of the Church wish to see taken. At the very top level of decision making the Church is taking decisions against the will of the Church at large. While it is possible that the Synod may be right while the popular view is wrong that does not appear to be the situation in this case, and it is unlikely to arise very often, and if it did one would expect all three houses of Synod to be united.
When synodical government was introduced to the Church of England it was decided that when the Synod votes in Houses, as it does on all major issues of doctrine and law, measures can only be passed if there is a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50% +1 vote. There were, no doubt, reasons that seemed good at the time for choosing to do this. It meant that where major reforms were planned there was clear and widespread support for the changes. The Church is keen to feel that they decisions that we make are in line with the will of God and the system intended to help the Church to discern what is God’s will. However, the system appears to be broken. Those opposed to this measure, even in the House of Laity, are in a clear minority. That minority, unrepresentative of the laity of the Church of England as a whole, are able to undermine the clear will of the Church. As far as I can see that means that the way we govern ourselves is broken.
Are we the Church that we think we are? Of course, we know that tradition is important in Anglicanism. It has always been a key value for us; but so is adapting and welcoming innovation and change where that is appropriate and is the will of the Church and judged to be in accord with the will of God. If we allow tradition to tie us down in the past the tradition has no value. Just because we have never had women in positions of authority is no reason to say that they must never be there. Scripture, tradition and reason have been the three planks on which our Church has been built. This means that there will be reasons for interpreting both scripture and tradition in ways that are different from the way we did it in the past. So, although, scripture may tell us that women should not speak in the assembly, nor be leaders (nor cut their hair short!) these are instructions that we must bring reason to bear on. Because of the difference of our cultural situation we will almost certainly interpret such instructions differently from in the past. We do have the freedom as a Church to rethink the ministry. The evidence in scripture for the threefold ministry we have is thin. Scripture will not give us an excuse for differentiating against women in ministry.
Following this vote it will be difficult for us to present the Church of England as an organisation that believes that all human beings are created equal. The world, and other Christian churches, are now able to point to us and say that we continue to discriminate against women - and how do we say that that is not true? What is the evidence that we believe that women as well as men are created, as we say, “in the image of God.” (Genesis 1.27)
A Church which society at large has marginalised and considers to be out of touch and old-fashioned will now find it harder to have a voice in that society - particularly on issues of morality, fairness, justice and gender. But the Church does have things which are worth listening to. The Church may well be forced into its own ghetto with little role in the world other than to serve the needs of its own members. That is not what any Christian believes the Church is for.
But it is not only the decision that was made that makes the Church look foolish and out of touch. In the past debates in General Synod have been marked by a spirit of generosity and wisdom, reflecting a genuine desire to come to one mind about difficult issues. But yesterday’s debate did none of that. It was partisan, trite, boring and did little more than see a procession of more than a hundred speakers in seven hours state their point of view, often dressing up their thinly disguised prejudice with honeyed words of respect for those who took a different view. If that is “how Christians love one another” (John 13.34-35) no wonder the world is turned off. (Luckily for us not many will have listened to the debate itself.)
What must the Church do now?
In the first place it will need to look at how and when it can bring this issue back to Synod. Ordinarily it would wait until a new Synod is elected in 2015, but there is a process which can be followed to bring it back sooner to this Synod. It will come back. David Cameron, in Prime Minister’s Questions, said today that the Church should reconsider the decision quickly and without delay. Tolerance from politicians may be short-lived if we do not start to make real progress. I’m not convinced than there are many real advantages to the Church of England remaining the established Church in England but the decision may be made for us.
There is no question that the compromise before the Synod for the protection of those who cannot, in conscience, accept the ministry of a woman bishop was not perfect, but it may well have been the best that could have been managed. The issue will need to be looked at afresh.
The Church will, I think, have to look anew at how it governs itself. Perhaps instead of a two-thirds majority in each House on doctrinal issues and changes of law we could require a simple majority in each house and a two-thirds majority in the whole Synod.
My hope before the debate and vote were that the General Synod would pass the measure. My feelings immediately after it were of shock and disappointment that Synod could take such a foolish decision. Those feelings were quickly turned to anger that the Church is being made to appear irrelevant in the modern world.
The Church of England needs to find courage to say to the world, “this is what we stand for,” and to say to its members, “this the Church we are,” and require those members to accept the Church as it is and find a home within it or find some other spiritual home if they cannot accept the Church of England as it is. At times in its past the Church has been bold and inclusive; it needs to do so again - urgently.