Archbishops of Canterbury and York set to sign women bishops legislation into law in front of General Synod
By John Bingham
A string of senior female priests have been given special training to put them in prime position to become bishops in the Church of England when a historic change in canon law comes into force, the cleric who oversaw the process has disclosed.
The Rt Rev James Langstaff, the Bishop of Rochester, said there had been a major push to ensure that any female candidates interviewed for vacant sees in the coming months have the same chance as their male counterparts, some of whom may have been preparing for the process for years.
The decades-long campaign to open up the most senior positions in the Established Church to women will reach its conclusion when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York formally sign the change into law in front of the ruling General Synod in London on Monday
Members will also be asked to signal their approval in a show of hands for the legislation which they passed overwhelmingly in July and which has already received Royal Assent.
The first female bishops in England could be appointed before the end of this year if a handful of dioceses with vacancies for junior bishops – known as suffragans – move quickly. The timing has even led to speculation of a race to be the first.
The process of selecting the most senior bishops, those in charge of dioceses, involves a more lengthy process meaning that the first female diocesan bishop is unlikely to be announced before the New Year.
Yesterday Ladbrokes, the bookmaker, installed the Very Rev Jane Hedges, the Dean of Norwich, as favourite to become the first female bishop at odds of three to one.
The Church’s most senior lay official, the Secretary General William Fittall, told a Parliamentary committee in July that in cases where there was a tie between two equal candidates of opposite sexes, selection panels would be able to use a form of positive discrimination.
Bishop Langstaff, who was responsible for successfully steering the women bishops legislation through the Synod, disclosed that female would-be candidates had been given extra training to ensure they are as well prepared as men who may already have been through the process.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “What we are doing is some affirmative action rather than discrimination in that some real efforts have been made and are being made to make sure that those women who now may be candidates are able to be, as it were, on the level with their male colleagues who have been looking at this for some time.
“Therefore developing women for senior leadership has been a strand which has been given attention for some months now, indeed for longer.
“It is important that women who are interviewed for these posts are able to be considered absolutely on the level with their male colleagues.”
The most senior diocesan bishoprics usually go to candidates who already have experience of the episcopate having served as suffragans.
But Bishop Langstaff said there was no reason female candidates could not jump straight into one of the more senior roles after the law changes. Three years ago the then Dean of Liverpool, Justin Welby, was announced as the new Bishop of Durham, the fourth most senior post in the Church. He was in the role for only around a year when he was called to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Just as it is possible for men in the past to go straight from being vicars of parishes or from other roles in cathedrals to being a diocesan bishop there is no theoretical reason at all why a woman shouldn’t,” said Bishop Langstaff.
“We have got some very very experienced, very spiritual women in senior posts so it is not impossible.”
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