In England, a crack in the glass steeple


The Rev. Kat Campion-Spall weeps as she reacts after members voted to approve the creation of female bishops at the Church of England General Synod in York, England, on Monday. (Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty years after the Church of England began ordaining female priests, it will now begin allowing women to become bishops.

The historic vote came Monday during a meeting by the General Synod, the church's highest governing body, following five hours of debate. The decision, which follows years of controversy over the issue and comes after a similar vote was narrowly defeated in 2012, upends centuries of tradition in one of the world's most powerful religious institutions. The Church of England is the largest Christian denomination in England and has a presence in more than 160 countries, some of which already allow women to serve as bishops, such as the United States, Canada and Australia.

The momentous vote -- the significance of which the BBC called "hard to exaggerate" -- is pivotal for several reasons. For one, it reflects the church's willingness to reorient itself to be more in line with the lives of the people it serves. Obviously, it also allows women to gain far greater leadership responsibilities in the church's hierarchy, giving them greater say on policy and influence over the church's direction.

But it could also have an impact far beyond the Church of England. Some note the role the decision could play in providing a model of female leadership in more conservative clergies in the developing nations, where the church is seeing some of its fastest growth. Others are arguing that it could provide fuel for those in the Roman Catholic Church who have begun pushing for the ordination of women.

Putting aside whether that will ever happen in the Catholic Church -- especially following statements made by Pope Francis -- what is clear is that this time, leadership had an impact in breaking the deadlock. Two years ago, a similar proposal was narrowly defeated by the church's laity, prompting the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time to say the church had "undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society."

Since then, a new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, has been announced. He has been praised for his focus on reconciliation -- the new legislation offers concessions for more conservative parishes who want a male bishop -- and an influential leadership style that embraces risk-taking, strategic thinking and real-world pragmatism.

"To pass this legislation is to commit ourselves to an adventure in faith and hope," Welby said in his address Monday. And provide evidence that centuries-old institutions can and will change if the right leadership is in place.

Read also:

Pope Francis and the power of five words

Pope Francis and a holy, humble break from tradition

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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