Last week, a monumental change took place in the practices of the Church of England, as the first female bishop, Libby Lane, was consecrated. After decades of long debate, the action marks a striking new age, ending the tradition of all-male priesthood. Although women have been consecrated as bishops in many parts of the worldwide Anglican community since 1989, and as priests in England since 1994, opponents put up a strong resistance to their further promotion in the Church of England, which only became possible last autumn. The importance was noted by Lane, who humbly admitted the consecration was an action bigger than herself, and one she would struggle to live up to: ‘“My consecration service is not really about me…with echoes of practice which has been in place for hundreds of years in the church, it is a reminder that what I am about to embark on is shared by the bishops around me, by those who have gone before me and those who will come after.”
This is not the first time Lane has broken the mould. She was ordained as a priest in 1994, the first year that women could be ordained into the priesthood. Lane was ordained with her husband, and they were one of the first married couples to do so.
However, there was one objection to this historic event. As the archbishop of York asked whether the congregation approved the ordination of Libby Lane, a lone protester named the Rev Paul Williamson shouted “not in the Bible”. The Rev Paul Williamson has been objecting to women clergy for many years, and in 1994 he attempted to charge the archbishops of Canterbury and York with high treason for changing the law so that women could be ordained priests. Following the unwelcome outburst, the archbishop, John Sentamu, read a list of reasons why the consecration was in fact legal. When the question was repeated, there was silence. A Church of England spokesman described Williamson as a “serial protester”, adding: “He’s got the right to protest but the contrast was between a lone voice protesting and a sea of voices affirming.”
The plan is not for Lane to be the exception in the Church of England. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has high hopes for the involvement of women in the church, going as far as to say he wants half of bishops to be women in 15 years’ time.
Justin Welby’s liberal and contemporary thinking is seen by many as an attempt to breathe new life into a church that has been declining in influence in recent years. As Pope Francis receives international acclaim for his forward thinking and refreshing thought, the change in attitudes in Christian denominations is perhaps a realisation across the board that the church cannot continue to adhere to medieval expectations and still survive. This mixture of old and new was perfectly encapsulated by Lane in her statement: “Thank you to all who are praying for me and partying with me today.”