On Saturday, 17th November 2012, 61 year old Ellinah Wamukoya was ordained Bishop of Swaziland, the first female Anglican bishop in Africa. She had been elected by two-thirds majority votes in the country’s Houses of Clergy and Laity (Many dioceses in the world-wide Anglican Communion appoint bishops by open, democratic election, as distinct from the ‘behind closed doors’ approach of the Church of England). This was in a conservative country where the Swaziland King, his royal family, the Government and local authority members all snubbed her ordination. Bishop Wamukoya said she had not come across any opposition in principle to her ordination from within the Church of Swaziland. She thus becomes the 37th woman bishop in the Anglican Communion.
Three days later the Church of England, where 42 out of the 44 dioceses had already voted in favour, failed by six votes to reach the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity, despite near unanimous support in the House of Bishops (3 Anglo-Catholic bishops voted against; 2 evangelical bishops – Chester and Exeter – abstained), and a huge majority in the House of Clergy.
It is worth pointing out that the Church of England is the only Province in the Anglican Communion which has sought to make any legislative provision for those opposed to women bishops. Elsewhere, opponents have either had to accept women bishops or leave. The vote in General Synod was about whether adequate provision was being made for opponents so that they could in conscience remain within the Church.
The debate followed many years of trying to agree on what might be “adequate” for opponents, yet without compromising the role of women bishops in such a way that they would be regarded as ‘second class’. Some of the schemes proposed by opponents would have effectively written discrimination into Anglican law. Many of those in the Synod debate used arguments that had not changed since the years leading up to Synod’s approval of women being ordained to the priesthood in 1992. For some, it is no more possible for a woman to become a bishop than it is for a woman to become a husband or a father. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what many opponents really want is little short of a ‘Church within a Church’ – a strange concept of unity from those who kept telling Synod that unity within the Church was what they wanted.
One of the issues raised by the Synod vote is just how representative of ordinary lay people the Synod’s House of Laity really is. They are elected by Deanery Synod members, who often don’t know the candidates and have little or no opportunity to find out their views through ‘hustings’, because many dioceses see hustings as ‘political’ rather than spiritual, and therefore don’t hold them.
I suspect events will now move quickly, and it is unlikely the Church will have to wait another five years to get a chance to vote again. In the meantime, lay people might usefully first find out who their Deanery Synod representatives are (do you know who represents St. Mary’s?), then who represents lay people in this diocese on General Synod, and what their views are.
Meanwhile, here is a Christmas thought. Many of our Christmas cards show pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child. Through faithful obedience to God, Mary gave birth to the Son of God. She fed him in the flesh. She nurtured him and cared for him. She enabled him to grow and to flourish. If a woman can do that by God’s invitation for the physical body of Jesus, what exactly is it that prevents a woman from feeding, nurturing and growing the body of Christ in a diocese?
I wish all of you a peaceful Christmas, and a more just and hopeful 2013.