Being in the public gallery for the final General Synod debate on women becoming bishops was a very different experience from November 2012. We were tense, hopeful but not confident, hot, and braced – having sat through many Synod debates on this over the past 14 years we were expecting to hear expressed again the sub-text ‘what a problem women are when they want us to change things and be included’.
Synod had just debated and affirmed a covenant to care for armed forces members and families, as they are more and more likely to live outside bases in England and have less immediate support. This was a sombre but positive debate and generated an atmosphere of serious business., that was carried through to the Final Approval debate.
The Archbishop of York chaired the debate differently from November 2012, calling more speakers in support of the legislation than against, in the morning at least. This helped to reflect the support from the wider church, and gave a more realistic sense of where the church is on the issue.
Dr Paula Gooder spoke first from the floor, setting a positive bible-based argument for going with the package and being called to reconciliation within it. Dr Philip Giddings followed up by declaring that he would, this time, vote in favour of the legislation, unlike in November 2012. The Bishop of Ely called upon everyone to live up to the 5 principles and pledged himself (as a ‘young man’) to honouring them in future years.
The first three speeches had thus set out the territory: we are all in this together, we need to move forward together, and let’s make it work together.
Almost all subsequent speakers wanted the legislation to be passed, including a number of those who declared that although they were happy to work with the arrangements, they could not in conscience vote yes. We recognised the dilemma but were frustrated by the decision: what if the vote failed again because of this?
There were a number of ‘bending over backwards to make this work’ speeches, generosity expressed, willingness to admit past hurts inflicted and to apologise. All very different from previous debates on this subject.
Lunch was taken with a sense that everyone was trying really, really hard to help everyone move forward together: that people were being genuinely careful and supportive of others with different points of view. It was demanding listening but hugely promising for the vote.
The afternoon reverted more to type: equal numbers of speeches for and against, a number of exhortations from opponents not to exclude them and their views, a repetition of the unorthodox theology that caused such disturbance in November 2012, and a sense of partial retreat into camps, tribes and silos.
I have to say I got a bit bored as I heard the same phrases used against and in favour of the legislation through the afternoon. The energy flagged in the heat and I really hoped we would not conclude with a series of weak but well-meaning speeches.
But no. The Chair invited the Bishop of Chichester , the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Canon John Spence each to speak for five minutes. To be honest the first two of these speeches were probably better than they sounded, and will merit reading in the proceedings as I am sure they set out good intentions and pledges from both sides. But they were eclipsed by John Spence’s speech (which is on YouTube). He had been waiting to be called all afternoon, and thought he had two minutes. Given five, he majestically called for Synod to step out in trust, in a speech that raised the energy, released the tension, made most people cry, and allowed us to remember what we are church for. And he didn’t mention women once.
So the Synod voted. We knew we should have enough of a majority if everyone in favour of the principle of women becoming bishops voted Yes, and so it proved. After a brief flurry of cheering in the public gallery (counter to instructions from the Chair) we left Synod to the rest of their required voting, and were met outside by dozens of photographers. You will have seen the pictures. The feelings? Mainly relief, then joy, then gratitude to all who for so long have worked and prayed for this result. Sadness for those who played their part and weren’t here to share in the achievement, and sheer pleasure that the Church of England had some good news to proclaim. For WATCH? There is another crack in the edifice of patriarchy, and we believe all will be the better for it, inside God’s church and inside God’s world. Let’s see where the Spirit now leads us, and join in her work.