The Church of England chose its first female bishop on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Thus it broke with a 500-year-old tradition, in place since its inception in the days of King Henry VIII. Although Anglican churches in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have seen women bishops for years, the mother church and other developing countries had so far refused to elect women to this senior and prestigious post. Traditionalists bitterly opposed to this move, still cite the Scriptures as sanctioning only male bishops.
Rev. Elizabeth Lane has broken through the glass ceiling. Her appointment comes just four weeks after a contentious Church of England General Synod meeting in November decided to change its canon laws to allow female bishops. Supporters of this move insist that appointing female bishops is ethical and vital to keep the church relevant, and to stem the exodus of its congregations.
The subject of female priests was first put forward in 1975 and died in 1978. The Church of England allowed female priests to be ordained only in 1992. The battle to appoint female bishops started shortly after. This first victory comes 20 years after the entry of the first female priests. Rev. Lane will be consecrated on Jan. 26, 2015 and will serve as Bishop of Stockport. This bishopric has stood vacant since May when the incumbent, the Right Rev. Robert Atwell became Bishop of Exeter.
Technically, Stockport is not a full diocesan position, but an assistant or suffragan bishopric in the diocese of Chester. Nonetheless it represents a historic shift. Suffragan bishops can be appointed faster, as they are chosen by the diocesan bishop, cutting through much of the formality and red tape.
A Christian since 11 years old, Rev. Lane used to go alone to church services in Derbyshire. She has worked for the diocese of Chester for the past 14 years. Her previous appointments have been in the diocese of York, as hospital chaplain, and as family life officer for the social responsibility committee in the diocese of Chester.
Rev. Lane, 48, who prefers to be called Libby, became a deacon in 1993, and was ordained a year later. She has served as a priest for 20 years. An alumna of Oxford University, she studied ministry at Cranmer Hall, the theological college of Durham University. She was elected Dean of Women in Ministry in 2010. She is also a selection advisor on candidates for ordination since 2003. Ms. Lane represents northwest England as observer in the Church of England’s House of Bishops – one of eight female clerics to hold this office.
The Church of England’s chosen first female bishop has a multi-layered personality and many interests. She is a school governor, and promotes social action initiatives. She is learning the saxophone, and is an avid Manchester United fan. She reads and does cryptic crosswords for relaxation. The mother of two grown-up children, Lane is married to a priest who is coordinating chaplain at Manchester Airport, Rev. George Lane. They were among the first married couples to be ordained together.
Speaking of her appointment, at a town hall meeting on Wednesday in Stockport, Lane said it was a remarkable day for her and a historic day for the Church of England. She describes herself as being both grateful and daunted by her new responsibilities.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is a staunch supporter of the drive to admit women bishops into the Church of England. He praised Lane for her Christ-centered life, and dedication to church and community. He said her appointment is the first step in reversing centuries of arcane canon law, and the first phase of a new chapter for the church.
Lane’s appointment was given the Royal Assent by the Queen and endorsed by the Prime Minister David Cameron, who congratulated her in a statement on Wednesday, lauding it as a historic appointment and step forward for the Church.
A further sign of the times is new legislation to fast-track women bishops into the House of Lords, which is expected to be introduced in Parliament immediately. It would pave the way for female clerics to take their seats with the Upper House’s “Lords Spiritual” before the general election in May 2015.
The Anglican Church still has a way to go to attain gender equality. Today almost half the female clergy work gratis, and are unlikely to rise to positions of seniority. Only three of its 44 cathedrals are women-run. Most female clergy are not given their own parishes.
The Church of England in choosing its first female bishop, has however taken a significant first step. Lane believes her appointment and role will lead the march for more. She may be the first, but hopes she will not be the only female bishop in the Church of England.
By Bina Joseph
Photo by Smabs Sputzer – Flickr License