Yesterday, the Church of England voted to ordain female Bishops. While the change may not actually go into effect until 2015 and some final obstacles still remain, the vote still represents a significant victory for both women and organized religion.
The Anglican Church's decision is an important step for gender equality. English women have served as priests for more than 20 years, yet they still have not been able to hold significant leadership positions. Through this vote, women will have the ability to exert proportional influence and representation within the domestic church leadership. It's another hole broken in the glass ceiling, and that is always a good thing. It also represents a crack in the global religious glass ceiling, albeit one a little less dramatic than the domestic hole. After all, England is not exactly breaking new ground. The Anglican Churches in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States have all permitted women to serve as bishops. However, there is still symbolic value to the Anglican Church permitting the ordination of women in the spiritual home of the Anglican Church.
This is especially important given the role of women in the developing world. The fastest growing provinces of the Church are all developing nations, including Nigeria, which is now the second largest in the Anglican Communion. Given the often-conservative nature of clergies in the developing world and the tendency to force women into traditional and subservient gender roles, the decision to ordain women in England represents an important model of leadership for other Anglican provinces throughout the world.
Similarly, the recent vote to ordain women is an important development in the relationship between organized religion and modern social norms. It often feels like the conservative elements of the Christian churches in England and the U.S. directly conflict with the prevailing opinions of the general public. Evangelical Christians, for example, represent the majority of opposition to abortion and homosexuality, even though the American public generally supports these issues and the Supreme Court also has issued rulings supporting them. Many wonder whether or not organized religion can adapt to the progress of social acceptance. The vote to ordain women demonstrates that the Church can adapt to long-term social trends, even if it does so slowly and reluctantly. In doing so, though, the vote also repudiates subservient gender norms in an institution directly responsible for the proliferation of those norms.
Granted, the ability to ordain a woman as a bishop is not the same thing as actually ordaining her as a bishop. The Church of Ireland, for example, has allowed for the ordination of women since 1990. 23 years later, a woman has not yet been ordained. Women face many obstacles in the clergy, from the entrenched political influence of men to the procedural rules that undermined their last initiative. But we cannot deny the symbolic victory that the vote provides.
Equality may unfortunately take a long time, but it is a noble dream. The path is long and the obstacles many, but the history of the Church, like the history of social tolerance, is still a story of redemption and hope.