In a move which clearly prioritises principle over church unity, the Church of England voted on Saturday night to reject a proposal to provide for traditionalist parishes to opt for male bishops to preside over formal events once women are installed as bishops.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York had both laid their personal authority on the line in an appeal to maintain the unity of the 400 year old church after some traditionalists had threatened to leave if women bishops are introduced.  Yet the General Synod narrowly voted down the Archbishops’ compromise measure, paving the way for the introduction of women bishops in the near future.  Interestingly, the majority of Synod members voted for the proposal, but the clergy didn’t, and since changes have to be accepted by all three houses of the synod (laity, clergy and bishops), the clergy effectively vetoed the will of the wider church.  Whether this was out of loyalty to the principle of male leadership, or simply dislike of working for a woman, is not clear.

Liberals have accused the Archbishops of being weak in their concessions, suggesting that the church has dallied over this issue for far too long and that traditionalists who don’t want women to become bishops can ‘go to Rome’.  Pope Benedict XVI already muddied the waters by last year holding out the promise of ‘fast-track conversion’ to disgruntled Anglo-catholic priests.  Yet many of the conservative clergy who voted against the proposal would not have been traditionalist Anglo-catholics, but evangelicals.  They will have no desire to join Rome, so will be faced with the dilemma of staying within the Church of England or leaving it.

Liberals are also disgruntled over plans to appoint a new Bishop of Southwark to succeed Tom Butler.  In an apparent leak from the Crown Nominations Commission (which may have been orchestrated by conservatives) it was suggested that Canon Jeffery John was in line for the post.  Canon John was forced to revoke his acceptance of the role of Bishop of Reading in 2004 after an outcry over his long-term relationship with another male priest.  They subsequently entered a civil partnership together.  If the traditionalists’ goal in raising a hue and cry over Canon John was to prevent him being considered, it seems it has worked, as the CNC has confirmed that his name is not on their list of candidates.

Over the centuries, the C of E has been remarkably successful at not being dogmatic about belief and creating room for those with differing opinions to shelter under the one roof of a very broad church.  These two issues do however seem to be in danger of tearing the C of E apart as the liberal and conservative wings become increasingly strident in their demands.

Please pray for the members of the General Synod as they continue to debate these issues till Tuesday 13th July.  Pray for the Archbishops to have wisdom and grace as they lead a dividing church.  Pray for a spirit of unity to prevail, and for a loving sensitivity to be shown among Christian brothers and sisters who disagree passionately about these issues.