Looking back at the 1992 debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood and the aftermath of the decision, George Austin uncovers a history of intolerance and broken promises

The 1990 elections to the General Synod were fought on one single issue: the ordination of women to the priesthood. A normal poll (that is, on wider issues) will produce a Synod within whose membership is a genuine expertise on most subjects, secular as well as religious, that are likely to come before it. Debates can often be first-rate, probably unparalleled within any similar assembly, and this was noticeably lacking between 1990 and 1995.

But not so on that fateful day of Wednesday 11 November 1992 when the Draft Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, together with associated Canons and the important Draft Ordination of Women (Financial Provisions) Measure, were considered.

A close call

The major matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood was dealt with in a six-hour debate of the highest quality: expert, constructive, without rancour save from a couple of speakers, often theological, and with a balance of contributors on both sides of the argument and from all three Houses.

In order to pass it required a two-thirds majority in each House and at the end that is what was obtained – but only just. The bishops voted ‘ayes’ 39 to 13 ‘nos’ (35 needed); the Clergy 176 to 74 (166 needed); and the Laity 169 to 82 (168 needed). If one former opponent had not changed her mind the Measure would have been defeated.

Yet even some hard-line opponents did wonder if such a result might have been politically disastrous in that, faced with the defeat of their hopes, some bishops might well have gone ahead anyway with the kind of illegal ordinations that took place in the United States, with none even of the inadequate safeguards which were eventually granted.

The Financial Provisions Measure was put forward because clause 12 of the main Measure provided that it could not come into force unless the Synod made provision ‘for the relief of hardship incurred by persons resigning from ecclesiastical service’ by reason of their opposition to the ordination of women.

In the light of the later fury of feminist fundamentalist groups that any consideration was given to such hardship, it is worth noting that this Measure passed overwhelmingly in all three Houses: Bishops 35 to 0; Clergy 225 to 7; and Laity 220 to 11.

It was commonly said that such financial provision was only agreed to as a result of pressure from Parliament, or at least from its Ecclesiastical Committee, but as Archbishop Habgood was later to point out, such provision had already been discussed within the House of Bishops.

Destructive attempts

A year later on 9 November 1993 there was a four-hour debate on the proposals for an Act of Synod, introduced by Archbishop Habgood of York, who was determined that proper provision be made for those who could not accept women as priests. The morning debate was simply to agree to give consideration to the proposals, and there were thoughtful contributions both from those who supported it and from those who doubted either its merits or its necessity.

In the afternoon the Synod returned for a more detailed look at the provisions and it was here that the debate turned decidedly nasty. With one or two exceptions, the amendments proposed were wrecking amendments, though all (save a tidying one by Habgood himself) were defeated.


One member actually sought to prevent the ordination or preferment to senior office of anyone who could not accept the ordination of women. His speech was condemned by none other than the Archdeacon of Hereford, John Saxbee, now Bishop of Lincoln and since 1998 President of the Modern Church People’s Union, who suggested that nobody is ‘more intolerant than a theologically liberal person.’

He added that ‘the intolerance of liberals is sometimes a wonder to behold and liberalism sometimes presents the unacceptable face of exclusivism.’ The history of the Church of England in the thirteen years has certainly shown the truth of that, as has a defeated amendment by Frank Williams.

He was concerned that even though the House of Bishops of the day had agreed to accept certain moral obligations in regard to proposals and agreements, the composition of that House was bound to change over the years and there was no guarantee that future bishops would accept the same obligations. We know they have not.

The Act returned to the Synod for final approval two days later and – members of WATCH and GRAS please note – was passed overwhelmingly by 39 votes to 0 by the bishops, 175 to 12 by the clergy and 194 to 14 by the laity.

Assurances were given by Archbishop Carey and others that there would be no discrimination in appointments, that both supporters and opponents of the ordination of women would have a respected and equal place within the Church of England. The rapidity with which this was ignored by the House of Bishops – with some honourable exceptions – was appalling.

Ignoring the rules

It soon became commonplace for bishops and archdeacons to descend on the PCCs of vacant parishes that had signed up to Resolutions A, B and C to pressurize them into rescinding their decision, with the implication that unless this happened there would be no new appointment.

Sometimes it was insisted that this be done there and then, without following the required procedure under the Measure that a month’s notice must be given of a meeting at which a vote to rescind would be taken. That is of course an offence under ecclesiastical law but no action has ever been taken in such circumstances.

In some dioceses when a priest known to be against the ordination of women leaves a parish, he will inevitably and deliberately be replaced by a supporter, regardless of the views of the parish. When in the early days a priest resigned under the provisions of the Measure, he was in some areas always replaced by a woman priest or by a male priest passionately in favour.

The shameful episcopal behaviour at every stage of the implementation of the 1992 and 1993 legislation and the deliberate ignoring of solemn assurances and promises made at the time has left an indelible stain that will inevitably affect the discussions on women bishops. The problem with trust is that once it has been broken it can never be restored.