The 26th January marked a historic moment for the Church of England, as the Reverend Libby Lane was consecrated as Bishop of Stockport, the first woman to be made a bishop since the denomination’s founding by Henry VIII in 1534. This was following decades of campaigning, which finally resulted in a ruling by the general synod in November 2014, giving the final seal of approval to the legislation on the ordination of female bishops that passed through Parliament earlier in the year. The service, which took place at the York Minster and was attended by more than a thousand people, was led by Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said that he had been “praying and working for this day” and that it was “high time we had women bishops”.
The issue of female bishops has been the subject of longstanding debate. Those who oppose the idea have argued that the Bible teaches different roles in worship to men and to women, and requires male headship in the Church; they would deem it unsuitable, for example, for Bishop Lane to have the power herself to ordain other bishops and priests. Whilst her appointment can be viewed as a triumph for those who have fought for gender equality in the Church, the dispute is far from over. There was an indication of this even during her own ordination ceremony when the Rev Paul Williamson stepped forward, claiming the fact that it was “not in the Bible” to be the existence of an “absolute impediment”.
Archbishop Sentamu responded that the consecration of women as bishops was now lawful in the eyes of the Church and of God, and, to the Bishop Lane’s visible relief, when he asked a second time there was no opposition, and the ceremony continued. However, Rev Williamson’s actions demonstrate that there is still serious discord within the Church on this issue, and that attitudes aren’t going to change overnight. Indeed, it has now been 21 years since the ordination of the first female priests in 1994, but of the nearly 8,000 Church of England priests in the country, still only 1,781 are women. Similarly, there are 101 Church of England male bishops, but only 30 female bishops worldwide. Other denominations of Christianity are even further behind; the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, allows only baptised men to be ordained in any position of authority.
Nevertheless, this may signify for many a turning point in Christianity, not just relating to gender equality, but representing a general trend towards modernisation in the Church as a whole. It is clear that the Church of England is not the only denomination to be taking such steps; this is a role which is frequently accredited to Pope Francis, who, during his time as pontiff, has been embarking on what many are calling a quiet revolution of the Roman Catholic Church. Particularly memorable moments of 2014 include his presiding over the marriage of 20 couples at the Vatican, including some who had been cohabiting, had been previously married or were single parents, and his statement about the theories of evolution and the Big Bang being perfectly compatible with a belief that God created the universe.
Whilst the Church continues to face the challenges of modernisation, and is likely to do so for a long time to come, Libby Lane stands as a symbol to the world that it is nonetheless moving in the right direction, one female bishop at a time.