Primate of Nigerian Anglican Church, Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh
By Paul Obi
Still smarting from the controversy arising from the consecration of gay priests and bishops, the Church of England, Anglican Communion, Tuesday voted against the prospect of having women bishops in the church.
The vote came after a dozen years of controversy on the ordination of women priests and consecration of women bishops in the church.
The controversy also divided the church in Nigeria as some bishops did not see anything wrong in ordaining female priests, while other clergymen considered it an ecclesiastical sacrilege. The late Bishop Herbert Haruna of Ilorin Diocese who campaigned for the ordination of female priests had gone ahead to ordain three female priests to the chagrin of the then Archbishop of the Church of Nigeria, Abiodun Adetiloye. The latter was so crossed with Haruna that he barred him from attending the Lambert Conference in England, in November 1994.
No doubt, Tuesday’s vote against the consecration of female bishops is bound to create deeper division within the rank and file of the church. Already, the Anglican Church in South Africa has dissociated itself from the decision at Westminster; and endorsed the consecration of female bishops within the church. South Africa last Tuesday became the first country to consecrate a female bishop when Archbishop Thabo Makgoba confirmed that the Anglican Church of Southern Africa had consecrated its first woman bishop on the continent. The pioneer, Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya, will serve as the church's bishop in the conservative kingdom of Swaziland.
At the General Synod of the church, which took place at the Church House, Westminster, the debate whether to have female bishops or not was put to vote among the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. The conference recorded 346 members from the three groups who attended the synod as participants. Two were absent.
After the voting session, Bishop of York, John Sentamu, announced the result. He said while the House of Bishops voted overwhelmingly for the consecration of female bishops with 44 votes, the House of Clergy voted 148 also in support.
The votes were 44 for and three against with two abstentions in the House of Bishops; 148 for and 45 against in the House of Clergy, and 74 for and 132 against in the House of Laity.
But the crack in the process came with the House of Laity voting against women bishops with 132 votes. The House of Laity is the largest element of the general synod and is made up of lay members of the church elected by its 44 dioceses.
The quest for the consecration of women bishops failed to garner the two-thirds majority votes required to make the move to succeed. “Although 74% of members voted in favour of the legislation, it was dramatically defeated by six votes in the House of Laity.”
The failure of the bid for women consecration as bishops is also seen as a knock for both the outgoing Bishop of Canterbury, Most Rev. Rowan Williams, and his successor, Most Rev. Justin Welby, who is due to take over in March 2013. Both of them are avid supporters of women consecration as priests and bishops. Bishop Sentamu, a Ugandan, was supposed to be the successor of Dr Williams, being a more senior bishop in the Church of England. But the authorities of the Church of England had considered Sentamu not “diplomatic enough” a queer euphemism for discrimination to become the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC). Both Sentamu and the retiring Williams are pained that the legislation for women bishops failed to sail through.
Williams was quoted by The Guardian of London as saying that the vote was a “personal sadness”.
Hear him: “We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” he told the General Synod. “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday (Tuesday), whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.”
Also, another supporter of the ordination of women as clergy, Rev. Canon Harper, was quoted to have said that, “it’s quite hard not to take it personally; I think institutionalised discrimination will continue and this is very bad news for the Church of England.”
The action of the General Synod of the Anglican Church is likely to appease conservative members of the church in Africa and others in the southern hemisphere who are strongly opposed to women bishops, homosexuality and to some extent, the meddlesome nature of the UK Prime Minister and the British monarch in the appointment of Bishop of Canterbury.
Early in the month, the Primate of Nigerian Anglican Church, Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, had questioned the rationale and role of the offices of the UK PM and the Queen of England in the appointment of the head of the world Anglican Church, stating that, “the Anglican Communion should be separated from the politics of Great Britain.”
But indications also emerged Wednesday that many prominent persons in the church in UK are not comfortable with the Tuesday event where the opportunity to have women bishops was overruled. Supporters of the idea warned of dire consequence if nothing was done to reverse the trend.
They also argued that allowing the ideology of few conservatives and traditionalists with strand of Anglo-Catholic roots to prevail would spell doom for the church, as the UK parliament could strip or disestablish the Church of England from the Equality Act. It is also likely to harm the church’s anti-gay marriage laws in the parliament.
With its final nailing, supporters of women bishops would have to wait for another five years to re-introduce the proposal. Until then, the cracks between liberals and conservatives in the church will remain a sore point in the relationship between both camps.