The Church of England has approved legislation to allow the appointment of female bishops. The change, which takes place two decades after women were allowed to be ordained as priests, is expected to go into effect next year.
"My first response to the news was deep joy," Rt. Rev. Anne E. Hodges-Copple, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, told International Business Times. She's one of 20 consecrated bishops in the U.S. "Not only the Church of England but the rest of world will now see the image of God more fully represented in all the orders of ministry in one more significant branch of the Christian family tree."
The change comes after the church’s General Synod in July, where two-thirds of the church’s highest governing bodies backed legislation to allow the appointment of female bishops. A vote between these members took place on Monday and made the change to canon law official. Nine posts are up for grabs once the law goes into effect. Prominent figures including the Very Rev. Dr. June Osborne, the Dean of Salisbury, and the Very Rev. Vivienne Faull, the Dean of York, are rumored to be candidates for the senior roles.
The Church of England began ordaining female priests in 1994. They now make up one-third of the clergy. Hilary Cotton, chairwoman of Women and the Church, an advocacy group that has campaigned for the appointment of female bishops, says this ratio should be maintained at the church’s senior leadership level to see any lasting changes take effect.
“Until we get to around a third it doesn’t change the culture, or it is much harder to change it,” Cotton said, referring to how women and men should be treated equally while serving at the top posts.
The Church of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Denominations exist in more than 160 countries. Roughly half of its member churches allow the ordination of female bishops. In the United States, this began in 1989 when Barbara Harris was ordained Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. At the time of her consecration, police asked her to wear a bulletproof vest after she received death threats. Harris refused. Today, just 20 of the 239 consecrated bishops in the U.S. are women.
“What the numbers say to us is that we haven’t broken through the unconscious assumption that bishops will be men,” Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told the Episcopal News Service. “There’s a hesitancy to see this as a continuation of sexism, and an assumption that we’ve dealt with sexism in the church because women are ordained. But if women are the majority of the church and 40 percent of its ordained leadership, but only 20 of its bishops, then those are assumptions that should be rigorously and structurally challenged.”
Hodges-Copple has been a bishop suffragan for just over a year. She warns future female Anglican priests not to become preoccupied with the "trappings of the office" -- the mitre, the cope and the pectoral cross they will wear. "The outward symbols of being a bishop are deliberately glorious and elucidating of our rich tradition. But the garments should really obscure the individual and point to the majesty of Christ," she said.
Unlike the Episcopal Church of the United States where bishops are elected, bishops in the Church of England are appointed. This can prove to be difficult in conservative dioceses.
“I think one of the dangers might be that a woman could be appointed in a place where the majority didn't want a woman bishop,” Bishop Catherine Roskam, retired bishop suffragan of the Diocese of New York, told the Wall Street Journal in a 2008 interview on the issue.
For Roskam, her challenges lay not with the parishioners but with clergy. “I think the hard part for women is when they come up against people who think they're not ordained -- that is difficult and it can be very humiliating,” she said. “I deal with it with prayer. I remember that Jesus was humiliated at the end. I take that for my strength.”
Rose Hudson-Wilkin, an Anglican vicar in Hackney, England, said the change is bittersweet.
“There will be joy but there will also be some sadness. Sadness that we have had to fight, and sadness that ... those women who gave and gave to the church for all those years did not have this chance.”