July 14, 2014 7:45 pm

Victory for women bishops but no triumphalism

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Females form an untapped talent pool that is ripe for preferment
Women clerics celebrate on Monday after the General Synod backed female bishops©Getty

Women clerics celebrate on Monday after the General Synod backed female bishops

There was one muffled cheer when the crucial vote was announced and a little scattered applause. It was silenced by a single word from the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who was presiding: “Hello,” he said sternly. No triumphalism was the unspoken message.

But it was a kind of golden hello. At long last, the Church of England formally voted at its synod in York on Monday in favour of allowing women bishops. The first of the new breed will almost certainly be appointed soon after enabling legislation goes through parliament in the autumn. And the first female Archbishop of Canterbury? “That could be the one after me,” according to the incumbent, Justin Welby.

The absence of triumphalism was an appropriate response given the ridiculous fuss the church made about a change that everyone else regarded as a no-brainer. The matter looked like being settled in November 2012, when the reformist lobby was stunned by a narrow defeat under the church’s archaic voting system.

Since then two things have changed. One was the arrival of Mr Welby at Canterbury, carrying an astute political sensibility along with his air of sanctity: some church-watchers give particular credit to his director of reconciliation, Canon David Porter, whose experience includes the Northern Ireland peace process.

There was also the threat of direct action from the government which, taken to its ultimate, might have led to disestablishment of the Church and its final banishment to the margins of British life.

Mr Welby steered the ship carefully, designing safeguards that persuaded enough of those who fought – mostly on obscure theological grounds – to the second-last ditch to lay down their arms.

The motion needed a two-thirds majority in all three houses of the synod. It again passed overwhelmingly among the bishops, 37-2, and the clergy, 162-25, but this time the blocking minority in the laity dwindled from 74 to 45, against 152. The crucial speech may have come from a leading lay conservative, Philip Giddings, who said he would vote in favour because the safeguards for conscientious objectors were “adequate”.

Mr Welby said afterwards he was delighted: “Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases disagreeing.”

Any losers who stay sore may be sliding to a very sad irrelevance. The spotlight will fall on the first woman as soon as she is appointed, and several dioceses will be vying for the honour of being number one. Apart from anything else, the publicity windfall could help pay for a lot of leaky church roofs.

There is another reason to appoint a female bishop. The ordination of women was first allowed 20 years ago: they now form a third of the Church of England’s priesthood. There is an untapped talent pool there that is ripe for preferment: when Mr Welby said a woman could succeed him, he was being practical not patronising.

It will not take long for those most unpriestly organisations, the bookmakers, to start offering odds. Hot tips to be the first woman bishop include the deans of Salisbury, June Osborne; York, Vivienne Faull; and Norwich, Jane Hedges. Another contender is the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, born in Jamaica, brought up in Hackney and chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. All-women shortlists will not be necessary.

Meanwhile, synod will find other subjects to bicker about. Within the past few days, a previous archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has spoken in favour of changing the law on assisted dying, which Mr Welby opposes. Most outsiders might see that as a subject more worthy of the Church’s time.

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