Women bishops debate: the issues

The General Synod The general synod rejected the previous women bishops measure in November 2012

The Church of England is taking a fresh look at proposals for legislation allowing women to become bishops, with some predicting that the decades-old debate may be nearing its end

What is at the heart of the controversy?

The Church of England decided that women could be priests almost 20 years ago.

However, the question of women bishops has remained a thorny issue for the Church, with groups of traditionalists firmly opposed to the idea.

Almost all opponents accept there will be women bishops - but they want their safeguards guaranteed. Supporters, though, have always feared concessions would mean a woman bishop did not have full authority in her own diocese.

Then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams consoles a colleague after the House of Laity voted against women bishops in 2012 Then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said the Church had "lost a measure of credibility" after the November 2012 rejection
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Is it close to a solution?

In November 2013, the general synod backed revised proposals for the possible consecration of women bishops.

On 11 February, the synod approved a speeded-up timetable which could allow the proposals to be voted on this July.

If it is approved, the first women bishops could be appointed this year, many observers believe.

At present the measure is being voted on by the diocesan synods of 43 the Church's 44 dioceses. By the end of March a majority (23 dioceses) had backed it, ensuring that it would return to the general synod in July.

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What happened to the last attempt to allow women bishops?

A measure before the synod in November 2012 would have made it lawful to consecrate women as bishops, but while it passed in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, it failed to gain the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity.

Margaret Housden holding a vigil outside the synod after the November 2012 vote Some evangelicals are convinced the Bible teaches that male headship is what God wills, both in individual families, and in the family of the Church, but others disagree
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What is different about the proposals now being considered?

The latest proposals go for the simplest possible option in allowing women to become bishops, long called for by the most forthright among those in favour.

They envisage that safeguards for the opponents (allowing them to request male priests and bishops to look after their parishes) could be guaranteed by principles set down in a declaration made by the House of Bishops, with disputes ruled on by an independent reviewer (widely dubbed an "ombudsman").

The Archbishop of Canterbury Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has said there is a "change of mood" in the Church on the issue which makes him very optimistic
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What do the two sides think of the latest proposal?

All parties say a more co-operative climate has emerged since the shock of the November 2012 vote. But opponents' concern remain.

The main group campaigning for women bishops, Women and the Church (Watch), said after the November 2013 session it was "very encouraged by the tone of the debate and the result of the vote which was overwhelmingly positive".

The mainly Anglo-Catholic Forward in Faith encouraged its members on diocesan synods to "give their votes according to principle and conscience" which "is likely to involve voting against the Measure". But it added: "We wish to underline that in making this recommendation we are not seeking to hinder progress towards a final resolution of this issue."

The Rev Rod Thomas, chairman of the Evangelical group Reform, said at the November 2013 session: "I shall be voting for this motion - that is not to say that at the end of the day... that I will be able to vote for final approval for the package."

Reform's director, Susie Leafe, has voiced doubts about the assurances given to those who oppose women's ordination, and concern about "the increasing hostility in diocesan synods" to those who oppose the measure.

Women from Reform presenting petition to the Archbishop of York It is not only some men who are opposed to female bishops - more than 2,000 women from within the Church of England signed a petition against them
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Is the new approach likely to succeed?

A measure along these lines would have been even more unlikely to pass in November 2012 than the one which was rejected - because it gives less to opponents.

But the margin by which the 2012 measure failed was small. Seventy-four members of the House of Laity voted against, with 132 in favour. In the present general synod only a few lay members would have to vote the other way to reverse the earlier result.

WATCH has said the diocesan votes have been even more favourable to women bishops than the last time round - in the traditionally conservative diocese of Blackburn, for instance. But these votes are not binding on general synod members.

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How long has this row been going on?

The Church agreed to ordain women priests in 1994, but the proposal to appoint women as bishops sparked a new set of problems.

Those who oppose women's ordination would not simply have to tolerate women bishops, as they do with women priests; they might also have to obey them as their superiors in the Church.

Women bishops would also be able to ordain priests, which some opponents say is not merely unacceptable, but theologically impossible.

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Who are the opponents and what have they got against women bishops?

John Broadhurst , Andrew Burnham  and Keith Newton after their ordination by Abp Vincent Nichols in January 2011 Numbers of Anglican opponents of women's ordination left to join the Roman Catholic Ordinariate, announced by Pope Benedict in 2010

Some - but not all - of the CofE's evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are opposed.

Anglo-Catholics revere the traditions and ceremonies of the Church. Some believe a woman cannot be a valid bishop and ordaining women prevents unity with the Roman Catholics.

Evangelicals place great stress on the teachings of the Bible and those who oppose women's ordination say scripture requires male headship in the Church.

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How many Anglican women bishops are there worldwide?

Rev Pat Storey Pat Storey is the first woman Anglican bishop in the UK and Ireland. There are nearly 30 active Anglican women bishops in the world

There are over 20 in active ministry. The most recently appointed, in March 2014, is Bishop Melissa Skelton of New Westminster, British Columbia, which includes Vancouver.

In September 2013 the Reverend Pat Storey, rector of St Augustine's in Derry, was appointed Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare - the first woman Anglican bishop in the UK and Ireland.

There are other women bishops in Australia, Canada, Cuba, India, New Zealand, Swaziland, South Africa and the USA.

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Why is this debate important to the rest of us?

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Westminster Abbey on their wedding day The Archbishop of Canterbury performed the marriage service of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011

It would alter the leadership profile of the Church of England, which is central to many state occasions and local ceremonies across the country.

For Christians who are not actively religious, the CofE is often the "default" Church that they turn to for weddings, christenings, funerals and education.

Women bishops' approval by the CofE would also encourage those who are starting to call for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church.

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