Church of England: Why It Will Not Allow Women to Lead


The Church of England just voted against legislation that would have allowed women to become bishops. In so doing they deny the female clergy of the Church of England from participating in national church leadership.

First, to be clear, this decision only affects the Church of England in the U.K. The Anglican communities in the U.S. (Episcopal), South Africa, Canada, and Australia have all allowed female bishops for decades.

This legislation has been hard fought. Promotion of women has been the pet project of the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who is retiring next month. For over five years he has convinced well over the requisite two thirds of clergy and leadership to accept female bishops. However, a conservative movement pushed back among the laity, or non-clergy, voting bloc. Now the Church of England may be tempted to proceed with a compromise solution, in which local church communities who do not wish to follow a female bishop will be "respected" (vaguely).

Women account for over 30% of all clergy in the Church of England. The measure was only six votes from passing the measure by two-thirds majority. After 10 years of fighting for reform, this rejection will pose a serious problem of credibility for a church that already suffers from plummeting participation and sinking relevance. 

Williams has spent the better part of his career devising complex compromises to prevent a full schism between conservative and reformist voices. Moreover, the Church of England risks losing its special relationship with the British government as the established church, since the church policies uphold gender inequality, and the government recently approved same-sex marriage.

Why? Conservative churchgoers were unhappy with concessions, and hinted at a schism that would probably land many churches in Roman Catholic Church. Moderates, who support female clergy and were made uneasy by the threat of schism, sided with conservatives. But let's be totally clear: the vote came to 132 to 74. A simple majority hugely favors female bishops, and the cause was only six votes short of two-thirds majority.

Why? Because the bureaucracy of this and other religious institutions is weighted in favor of conservative voices. Change is very, very hard in religious organizations.