Reformers rejoice for first female bishop

‘Blessed’: John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, consecrates the new bishop Libby Lane © PA

The Church of England has consecrated its first ever female bishop. It has been hailed as a landmark for progress and equality, but do religions fare better when they stick to tradition?

On 12th March 1994, the Church of England ordained 32 new priests and changed Anglicanism forever. They were the first women in over 450 years of the Church’s existence to be granted such a position. Yesterday, equality among the clergy took another historic stride as 48 year-old Libby Lane became the first female bishop. She called it ‘a profound and remarkable moment’.

The decision continues to divide Anglicans, and the service in York was disrupted by an opponent of the changes. As the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, asked the congregation if the Reverend Lane should be made a bishop, a man stepped forward shouting ‘Not in the Bible!’ The second time Dr. Sentamu asked the church there was no opposition.

Justin Welby, head of the Church of England and Archbishop of Canterbury, has been a vocal supporter of the changes and hailed a ‘completely new phase of our existence’. But those expecting a sudden rush of female bishops may be disappointed. The Church is notoriously slow-moving: the decision to allow women bishops took years of argument, and many remain unconvinced.

Much of the opposition to women priests comes from a passage in the Bible which impels men to ‘suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man.’ But this passage has been interpreted in very varying ways by different Christian denominations.

The Roman Catholic Church retains its traditional stance on women priests, as does the Orthodox Church. But several Baptist and Evangelical churches give men and women full equality at the altar. Most sects of Islam, which does not formally ordain religious leaders, allow women to lead other women in prayer, but no mainstream schools of Islam allow a woman to lead a mixed congregation. Orthodox Judaism requires its rabbis to be men, whereas all other types of Judaism allow women to be ordained.

By the mitre

Religion has always moved with the times. Christianity has shifted much since the bloody days of the Reformation, and this is simply another small but significant step in improving the Church of England. If religion bears no relevance to the lives and opinions of ordinary people, how can it expect to survive?

Yet years of modernisation have hardly ‘saved’ the Church: just 800,000 people attend an Anglican service on an average Sunday, and the figure is dropping by the year. Meanwhile religions which are more resistant to change, such as Catholicism and some sects of Islam, are thriving. For some, perhaps, the timeless and unchanging traditions of a religion are precisely what makes it appealing in a world of rapid change. Modernisation simply kills off mystery.

You Decide

  1. Is tradition important for its own sake?
  2. ‘You can’t reform eternal truth.’ Do you agree?


  1. As a class, make a list of the qualities you think a spiritual or community leader should possess.
  2. Choose two religions and compare how they have reformed to adapt to changing social and cultural circumstances.

Some People Say...

“God doesn’t change, but men do.”

Aldous Huxley

What do you think?

Q & A

How is this of interest to anybody outside the Anglican Church?
The Church of England is an influential institution in Britain even for those who don’t count themselves among its flock. Anglicanism is the UK’s state religion, and 26 of the 44 bishops sit in the House of Lords, voting on issues that affect everybody in the country. Occasionally they even cast the deciding votes on divisive and important issues.
What if I don’t live in Britain?
In that case you might not have much practical reason to care who becomes a bishop. But the issue at the heart of this story goes far beyond a specific denomination of Christianity: should ancient traditions be respected even when they are at odds with our general attitudes to the world? That’s an issue we all have to confront.

Word Watch

Church of England
Also known as Anglicanism. A branch of Protestant Christianity which has its origins in Henry VIII’s decision to break away from the pope’s authority. The British monarch is the head of the Anglican Church.
Justin Welby
The current Archbishop of Canterbury worked in the oil industry for 11 years, and his views represent the Evangelical tradition within the Church of England.
Years of argument
Legal obstacles to women becoming bishops were only removed in 2005, and it has been a constant struggle since then leading up to the ordination of Rev. Lane.
800,000 people
While only 800,000 people go to an Anglican service on an average Sunday, 59% of people in Britain identified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.

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