Female bishops: Anglicans preparing for first appointment

By Caroline Wyatt
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes celebrates the decision to allow female bishops

The Church of England has broken with centuries of tradition after its general synod amended church law to allow the appointment of female bishops. The first female bishop is expected to be installed in the new year.

And at Sunday service at St Mary Newington church in south London, there was a real sense of anticipation over the knowledge that from the following afternoon, women would be able to become bishops, some two decades after the Church of England first accepted women priests.

Parishioners here said it was high time for the change.

"Finally, finally, it's been so ridiculous that we've had to wait so long," exclaimed one woman after the service.

Immense pressure

"It's very good. Christianity is about humanity, and women are equal to men," two young men agreed as they emerged. "It just feels that the time is right," said another female parishioner.

It was in July this year that the historic vote at General Synod in York took place allowing women to wield real power in the church, two years after the Synod had previously voted "no".

Now that the change to canon law has been made, the first female Bishop in the Church of England can be appointed. Who that might be is likely to be announced in the new year.

Churches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already allow women as bishops, but haven't appointed one yet.

The Church has ensured that there will be interim measures to help parishes that object by ensuring that the first female bishops have male bishops under their leadership, so-called 'flying bishops', able to carry out some duties on their behalf.

Time is right

The Rt Revd James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester, who chaired the steering group on women bishops legislation, explained: "Those who are opponents, as it were, have accepted that reality - because it's quite clear we are not having two classes of women bishop here.

"A bishop in the Church of England is a bishop, whether they are male or female."

He said there would not be any "positive discrimination" were there to be a dead heat between male and female candidates for a post.

"What we are doing is some affirmative action rather than discrimination, in that some real efforts have been made and are being made to make sure that those women who now may be candidates are able to be, as it were, on the level with their male colleagues who have been looking at this for some time.

"Therefore developing women for senior leadership has been a strand which has been given attention for some months now, indeed for longer."

Media caption,
The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu reads the result, which was met by cheers

That has meant special leadership training for women who are considered the front-runners for the first jobs.

"It is important that women who are interviewed for these posts are able to be considered absolutely on the level with their male colleagues, " Rt Revd James Langstaff said.

The first four dioceses that could choose women as a senior bishop are Southwell & Nottingham, Oxford, Gloucester and Newcastle, although five other, more junior posts of suffragan bishop could be filled even sooner.

At St Mary Newington in south London, Canon Giles Fraser said that it was high time women became bishops.

"We've looked really silly that it's taken so long to do. But now that it's done, it's really great. And now we want to see some women actually being made bishops - we want to see them in the purple shirt."

But for whoever becomes the first women bishop to serve on these isles, the pressures will be immense, according to the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons. She is one of those who has long been part of the fight - first for women priests, and then for women bishops.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
For Anglicans like Giles Fraser, the change is a long time coming

"This synod is going to be momentous. As a woman, I am absolutely excited that people of my gender will no longer be able to be cast aside, in effect, but that they will be considered part of the leadership within the Church of England.

"My female colleagues and those who will be consecrated in the roles as bishops will be very generous in the way they go about their duties.

"We do not want to force people to accept women as bishops - they'll just get on with their job. Though I think they're going to need an extra dose of the Holy Spirit in order to sustain the weight of everyone's expectations."

Rose Hudson-Wilkin said of the historic Synod vote: "There will be joy but there will also be some sadness. Sadness that we have had to fight, and sadness that... those women who gave and gave to the church for all those years did not have this chance. The church has lost so much from that.

"But I hope that as we go forward, we will go forward in a spirit of grace."

Related Topics

More on this story