York,United Kingdom, November 20, 2013 -The Church of England will return to the divisive issue of female bishops at its general synod on Wednesday amid growing hopes that an end to the two-decade-old impasse could finally be in sight.
The church has been under huge public and political pressure to allow women bishops since the synod rejected previous legislation by six votes almost exactly a year ago. Its failure to resolve the issue was described by the church’s most senior civil servant as a “train crash”, while David Cameron warned that the church needed “to get on with it”.
Those in favour of bringing women into the episcopate are quietly confident the latest set of proposals will win favour at the synod and believe that some of the Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals who opposed the previous attempt are now more open to finding a solution.
On Wednesday the synod will be asked to give first approval to plans produced by a steering committee of 15 that included five synod members who voted against last November’s draft legislation.
Among the recommendations is the creation of an ombudsman who would rule on disputes over arrangements once female bishops are in place.
Under the plans female bishops would be introduced with a house of bishops “declaration” setting out guidance for parishes where congregations reject female ministry.
The ombudsman – appointed by the archbishops and with the backing of lay and clergy representatives in the General Synod – would be given power to investigate where complaints were made about arrangements.
If the package is approved by the synod on Wednesday and a draft declaration is endorsed at next February’s meeting, final approval for women to become Church of England bishops could be given in November 2014.
Campaigners say they have encouraged by a new, more collegiate spirit within the synod and last week’s statement from the Anglo-Catholic group Forward in Faith that urged its members to back the new plans. “Though these proposals are still far from what we have long said would be ideal, we believe that they may have the potential to provide workable arrangements for the future,” said its chair, the Rt Rev Jonathan Baker, bishop of Fulham.
While acknowledging that some of the group’s members would ultimately find themselves unable to vote in favour of female bishops should the synod take a final vote on the matter in a year’s time, he said the proposals nonetheless held out “the possibility of bringing to a conclusion a process that for too long has been a distraction from the church’s mission”.
Others were more cautious. Susie Leafe, director of the conservative evangelical group Reform, who was part of the steering committee but abstained from commending its report to the synod, said it remained to be seen how workable the new recommendations would be when they came before the synod.
“Just as Forward in Faith have reservations – and there are some important things they need to have dealt with before they’ll be able to sign up wholeheartedly to these propositions – so [does] Reform,” she said. “But we’re going there to listen to what people are saying and to discover whether there is a way forward.”
Christina Rees, a member of the archbishops’ council and a prominent campaigner for female bishops, told the Guardian last week that she was feeling “incredibly optimistic” about Wednesday’s debate.
“I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in quite some time because to me there is a different tone in the report from the steering committee,” she said. “There is the sense that for the first time, genuinely, we’re all in this together and that we can and we will find a way forward.”