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Scottish Episcopal Church votes to ordain women bishops

Posted on: June 12, 2003 5:04 PM
Related Categories: Scotland

by Matthew Davies

The General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), meeting in Edinburgh from 12-14 June, made an historic decision today by voting to accept women bishops and ending centuries of tradition. Today’s decision could lead the way to give Scotland the first female bishops in the UK.

At the 2002 General Synod a vast majority of the 156 members supported the motion, which gave churches throughout Scotland the opportunity to spend a year discussing the issue further in their own dioceses.

The motion received its second and final reading today and required a two-thirds majority for it to be passed. Out of 153 votes cast, 124 voted in favour, including all seven bishops of the SEC.

At present, only the Anglican/Episcopal Churches of the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Southern Africa have approved the ordination of women as bishops.

On 11 November 1992, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to open the priesthood to women, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate. This vote came after 70 years of formal discussion and debate in the Anglican Communion, which began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference first considered the issue. Currently, one in five Church of England priests is female.

The first women priests in the Anglican Communion were ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. During the 1960s and 70s there was a movement in many countries across the world towards the ordination of women as priests. In 1974 there was an irregular ordination of 11 women in the United States, and the Episcopal Church in the US authorised women's priestly ordination two years later. In 1993 and 1994 the Scottish Synod agreed to allow women to be ordained as priests and the first ordinations took place in December 1994.

Responding to today's decision, the Most Revd Bruce Cameron, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, said, "The decision is a momentous one. For some it will be received with great joy, for others pain, but I know that most of us will want to be members of the same family in the Episcopal Church. We must seek to be sensitive to all people in our church."

Professor David Atkinson, lay member of the Diocese of Edinburgh, spoke in favour of the motion, saying, "Jesus took a common sense approach to what would be seen by others as very difficult questions. We need to look at what the purpose of our church is to mission and ministry. Ordination of women to the priesthood makes available to the Church the talents of a group of committed and skilled Christians."

He admitted that issues such as these always have upsides and downsides. He added, "I believe that common sense, fairness, inclusively of talented Christians and our ability to be effective in our ministry and mission, which needs to be seen as in touch with and understanding of society, dictates that we must pass this change to our canons."

The Revd Ruth Edwards, Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney, also supported the motion saying that it follows on from the ordination of women to the diaconate and the presbyterate. "It seems very strange to fix on them a stained glass ceiling," she said. "It will help our ecumenical work much more if God can call men and women equally to all levels within the church...It is about faithfulness to the truth."

David Fuller, a member of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, strongly rejected the motion and asked for more debate. "We live in times of great change," he said. "No one before us has had to live in such a volatile world...but there is an understanding trend towards unity. We should try to steer clear of making serious doctrinal mistakes."

The Revd Canon John Riches from the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway spoke briefly about his experience as a member of the International Anglican Orthodox Dialogue. He said that the Old Catholics and Orthodox in Eastern Europe issued a joint statement saying that they could find no reason why women should not be ordained. "The question really is, 'whatever decision is made will it cause a division?'" he said. "It would be discrimination if, in the absence of valid theological reasons, we chose not to support the motion."

The following motion was also passed:

Motion 4: That this Synod, having voted to admit women to the episcopate because a major majority of its members sufficient to satisfy the requirement of Canon 52 believes this to be a development, guided by the Holy Spirit, in the understanding of the Church's threefold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, as expressed in Canon 1:

  1. desires and intends no break with the tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ in which the Scottish Episcopal Church has always professed itself to be.
  2. acknowledges that within the Scottish Episcopal Church, there are those, who, for various reasons, cannot in conscience agree with its decision, recognizes the good faith in which their convictions are held and pledges that those who hold such convictions will continue for all time to come to have a valued and respected place within the Scottish Episcopal Church.
  3. further acknowledges, with deep sadness, that in seeking to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it has felt called to act without the existence of a consensus on the matter in all branches of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, and expresses penitence for the existing divisions within the Body of Christ and for any further division therein which today's decision may cause.
  4. recognises its own fallibility, with that of all the Church's Councils, and prays that, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all branches of the Church may continue to work together in love, so that they may grow together in faith into the one Body of Christ.