My Take: Vote on female bishops flawed
The Church of England's General Synod was held in London this week.
November 21st, 2012
12:01 PM ET

My Take: Vote on female bishops flawed

Editor's note: Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an ordained Episcopal Church priest and author of "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom."

By Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN

(CNN) - On Tuesday, the Church of England voted against the consecration of female bishops, which means that for now at least, while women are able to become priests and deacons, they are unable to assume the leadership responsibilities that come with the miter.

But just because the Church of England voted down allowing female bishops does not mean female bishops don’t exist within the denomination in other parts of the world.

The Church of England is the historic origin of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and it’s structured somewhat like the United States. Within the Communion are provinces, kind of like states, and these provinces are by and large autonomous, with their own governing bodies and legislations.

Which means that while female bishops are prohibited in England, they are accepted in other provinces like New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States.

Church of England rejects female bishops by six votes

While those opposed to opposed to female bishops interpret church history and the Bible differently than those who approve of them do, the truth is that at least at this moment in the Church of England, fancy theological reasons are not the reason for this decision.

This vote has more to do with a quirky voting system than it has to do with doctrinal or cultural differences between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Let me explain what I mean: As many Americans know from the recent election, it is technically the Electoral College and not individual voters who choose the president. Which means scenarios can arise where one candidate wins the popular vote while another triumphs in the Electoral College. Americans know how painful, costly and time-consuming it can be when the voting system doesn’t match popular sentiment: see the Bush vs. Gore election in 2000.

And that’s pretty much what happened on Tuesday. See, the Church of England is organized by a legislative body called General Synod, which is sort of like the church’s version of Congress. That body is divided into three houses: one composed of bishops, one composed of clergy and one composed of laity.

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All three voted on female bishops, and a majority favored them in each: The House of Bishops voted 44-03, the House of Clergy voted 148-45, and the House of Laity voted 132-74.

So what went wrong? It turns out that legislation isn’t approved by a simple majority in General Synod but rather by a two-thirds majority in all three houses. So while more than 66% of each of the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy voted in favor of female bishops, only 56% of the House of Laity did the same.

And so the vote failed.

The irony is that well over 50% of all representatives voted in favor of female bishops (62% in total), and previous meetings of individual dioceses in the Church of England led to 42 of 44 of these groups approving female bishops (a diocese is sort of the equivalent of a congressional district). Moreover, previous research shows that more than 75% of members of the church approve female bishops.

So well over a majority of members of the Church of England want to see women hold the episcopate, just as they do in the United States.

But the voting system didn’t validate that.

Ultimately, I believe, the Church of England will ordain women as bishops. The timeline may drag, and quirks like this may happen again, but what Tuesday’s vote made clear is that the public desire for female bishops in England has changed from what it was even five or 10 ago.

Today, a majority of the news reports and editorials about the vote are not about divisiveness within the church or opposition to female bishops but rather about why the vote went wrong: From the prime minister to well-respected bishops, priests and laypeople, editorial after editorial proclaims dissatisfaction with the result of General Synod’s decision.

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Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Tuesday’s decision has nothing to do with the theological merits for or against female bishops but rather has much more to do with an organizational system that failed to represent the overwhelmingly popular opinion that it’s OK for someone with breasts to wear a miter.

On Wednesday, the Synod will meet to discuss ramifications of the vote. My hope is that the Church of England, as an organization, will find a way to affirm what those in the United States already affirm. But even more important, my hope is that they will affirm what many in England wish for their church’s future.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Anglican • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. sylvia

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  3. Arvoasitis

    Suppose all women got together and formed their own independent church. One theory is that all the established churches would collapse.

    December 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.