Church of England bishops to allow women clergy to join meetings

(Photo: Reuters / Andrew Winning)Female members of the clergy stand outside Church House in central London as the Church of England General Synod meets to vote on the ordination of women bishops on November 20, 2012.

The currently all-male Church of England House of Bishops says it will bring women priests closer to the workings of the church hierarchy by allowing them to "attend and speak" at meetings

Following a meeting in London, the House said Thursday it will include eight senior women priests as "participant observers" in all its future meetings until a time when women can enter the episcopate or become bishops. The Church of England has female priests, but only male clergy can become bishops.

The House of Bishops is one of the three groups that make up the General Synod, the governing body for the Church of England, the official church of the United Kingdom. The announcement to open the meetings to women clergy is a step in favor of legislation that would allow women to become bishops in the Church.

In November 2012, the Church of England voted to narrowly reject the inclusion of women in the episcopate. While the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy easily passed the legislation, the vote in the House of Laity fell just short.

"[The House of Bishops] decided that until such time as there are six female members of the House, following the admission of women to the episcopate, a number of senior women clergy should be given the right to attend and speak at meetings of the House as participant observers," the Church of England said in a statement.

"The intention is that eight members would be elected regionally from within bishops' senior staff teams (that include deans, archdeacons and others). The necessary change to the Houses' Standing Orders will be made in May," the Church said.

The bishops' meeting a Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the head of the Church of England, also included updates on proposals for new legislation on women bishops to be introduced at the church's General Synod in July.

The House "expressed its encouragement and support for new robust processes and steps" to bring the legislation about, the church said at the meeting's conclusion.

A ten-person working group chaired by the Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich is developing the legislation. 

The House of Bishops encouraged the working group to allow church members at diocesan and regional level to participate in the discussion ahead the working group's next meeting on March 4.

The top bishops also agreed to meet on September 19, when the College of Bishops and a group of senior female clergy will meet to discuss cultural and practical issues about gender and ministry in the Church of England.

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