On 11 November 1992, the Church of England voted in favour of ordaining women as priests. I was there, as a member of General Synod, sustained by the Bach Rescue Remedy passed along our row by a nun. It’s an abiding memory of a long day. Commentators will probably focus on the celebration outside, in Dean’s Yard, but I am more likely to reflect on how we came to that point.
To mark the 30th anniversary, and as we move towards another potentially difficult debate in February 2023 on Living in Love and Faith, I am copying below the full text of a piece I wrote back in December 1989, after an earlier November Synod which dealt with just one step along the winding road which led to the vote in November 1992. I hope it’s a reminder of how long it took, the stages it went through, and the unpleasantness of the process. Neither the title nor the subheadings were mine. The questions with which I ended are ones with which I still grapple now that I am back on Synod after nearly 30 years away from it. So… here goes.
Diocese of Guildford Herald, December 1989: TOO MUCH SIN IN SYNOD?
The November meeting of General Synod moved a small step closer to the ordination of women. The draft Measure will be sent to the dioceses, returning to General Synod in 1992 at the earliest.
I want neither to rehearse the arguments for and against, nor to discuss its possible consequences. I write as a supporter of the ordination of women who also sees herself on the Catholic wing of our church, and as a member of General Synod with serious doubts about how we operate as a synod.
The debate goes on against a background of pressure groups, threats, media appearances and articles which heighten the tension and polarise the church. However, I would suggest that our own procedures are equally to blame.
In November, at least one of the three churchmanship ‘groups’ instructed its members not to go for tea breaks but to stay in chamber in case their votes were needed at short notice. Several times we had a call for a division, which needs 25 members to stand before it can happen. I usually find these votes – which require the ringing of the division bell, a two-minute pause, and then a strict count by houses – a waste of time, but they do provide a chance to vote and then dash out for air, tea and other necessities.
After the count, members commune with their pocket calculators. New members of Synod mean a revision of the estimates.
Some members write their own speeches; others have them checked, or even written, by other members. It is all highly parliamentary – even, regrettably, involving shouts of ‘hear, hear’ and less supportive noises politely rendered in the official proceedings as ‘oh’. Applause becomes a matter of clapping loudly for members of one’s own faction, rather than genuine appreciation of a point well made. There are times when it is difficult to remember that it is God’s business we do.
For me, the key speech came late on Thursday, after nearly 13 hours of debate over two days, when a priest said, ‘I believe there is nothing a bishop can do to a woman that makes her a priest; the animal does not exist’. Until then, it was possible to envisage some way of framing the legislation so that everyone could stay in the Church of England. Its very complexity reflects a sincere wish to keep within the church the significant minority who oppose it.
Safeguards are built in for bishops and priests who could not accept women priests. There is something bizarre, however, about sitting down with someone who holds the above view, and watching him and others like him tampering with the various clauses. If someone would under no circumstances support the legislation, what is the point of his changing it? Is not the intention of revision give-and-take between those who accept their differences but sincerely wish to find a compromise? But how is compromise possible?
At one point we voted to remove a clause concerning appointments of bishops after the legislation goes through. A priest known to be opposed to the ordination of women was among those speaking in favour of removing it. Only after the vote did other members tell us that its removal meant that they could no longer support the legislation as a whole. Why did they not speak out earlier?
When a known opponent of women priests asked for the legislation to cover women bishops as well, was this an attempt to make it unacceptable to those Evangelicals who favour women priests but not – because of ‘headship’ arguments – women bishops? Are some opponents of women priests deliberately sabotaging the legislation in the hope of making it acceptable to less people?
The immediate question for me is this. Are we voting tactically, or as we believe.
Other questions follow. If I vote as I believe, and then fall into a tactical trap, should I be admired for my honesty or pitied for my tactical naivety? Should a sheep among wolves wear her wolfskin coat (Matthew 10:16)? Does the end justify the means.
How far do our procedures corrupt us, and are they weighted against the Spirit of the God who makes all things new?