A quarter of a century ago, on November 12, 1992, members of the Church of England’s General Synod gathered to debate women priests. Five-and-a-half hours later, a measure approving female ordination passed by just two votes. Supporters outside Church House, Westminster, cheered. Opponents looked stony-faced. “In the end, the pragmatists won,” concluded a Guardian leader published shortly afterwards.
A major shift in English Christianity was now underway. Even though no serving bishop would be asked to ordain women priests or to appoint them in his diocese, more than 1,000 traditionally minded clerics were expected to leave the Cof E. They would be replaced by an estimated 1,400 women deacons who were waiting to be ordained priests. The Catholic Church braced itself for a wave of Anglican clergy, while Catholic supporters of women priests turned up the volume.
The synod vote was not a sudden development. Anglicans had discussed women priests since at least 1920, when there was an attempt to place it on the Lambeth Conference agenda. In 1975, the General Synod passed a motion saying it had “no fundamental objections”. In 1988, three years after it had approved women deacons, the synod backed draft legislation on female priests. It took four more gruelling years to pass. Even then, the Church of England didn’t immediately introduce female clergy. Campaigners had to wait until March 12, 1994, when 32 women were ordained in Bristol Cathedral. Two months later, Pope John Paul II signed a short apostolic letter ruling out female ordination. “This judgment,” he wrote, “is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Ordinatio Sacerdotalis failed to convince Catholic advocates of women priests. But it sucked the energy out of a debate that threatened to polarise Catholics as it had Anglicans.
The then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, did not hide his dismay at the pope’s intervention. In a private audience the following year, Carey reportedly pressed John Paul II on why he had ruled out women priests. “Anthropology!” was the pope’s terse reply. In other words, it was God’s plan that the priesthood should be reserved to men and no vote could change that.
Ultimately, the Catholic Church received almost 400 former CofE clergy. Some, such as Bishop Alan Hopes of East Anglia, rose to prominence. Others served quietly in Catholic parishes, struggling to support young families.
Others still remained, hoping that they could uphold Catholic traditions within the Church of England. In 2009, Benedict XVI invited them instead to uphold Anglican traditions within the Catholic Church. In his apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, he urged groups of Anglicans who remained attached to their heritage to join an ordinariate within the Catholic Church. The Church of England, meanwhile, pressed on inevitably towards women bishops. In 2015, Libby Lane became the first when she was ordained Bishop of Stockport.
In the 25 years since the decisive vote we have undoubtedly seen a realignment of English Christianity. Rome has largely absorbed the Cof E’s “Catholic” wing, leaving the established church with a volatile mixture of Evangelicals and liberals. Yet while the synod vote destroyed any prospect of imminent unity between Catholics and Anglicans, cooperation between the two communions has actually grown. This is testament to the many Christians who refuse to give in to the dispiriting logic of division unleashed by the Reformation 500 years ago.
Recently, Oxford Students for Life held a meeting at St John’s College, Oxford, to discuss the forthcoming abortion referendum in Ireland. The event was disrupted by members of Oxford University Student Union’s Women’s Campaign, who chanted slogans and made a racket for 45 minutes. The meeting was forced to move to another room and the police had to be called.
That this should happen is a sad commentary on how little the concept of free speech is understood today, along with the allied concept of freedom of association. It also illustrates the way dialogue has become so difficult. How can one hold any conversation about abortion these days? The inescapable conclusion is that the Women’s Campaign does not want any such conversation to take place, and only wants to enforce one opinion on the university – its own.
This sort of mindset is one that members of St John’s College have encountered before. The college is the alma mater of St Edmund Campion, a promising university man who could have had a great career, had he only accepted the one legally imposed religious settlement of his day. But he chose another path.
Oxford Students for Life are following in the steps of Campion. It can’t be easy for them, for it is hard being shouted down, but they should take heart from the fact that they are right: right to be pro-life, and right to be in favour of dialogue and free speech. By contrast, the Women’s Campaign members have disgraced themselves.