The Church of England ended centuries of male-only leadership on Monday as Libby Lane became its first female bishop in a ceremony briefly disrupted by a traditionalist priest’s protest.
Around 100 bishops gathered around the 48-year-old to perform the traditional “laying on of hands” at the ceremony’s climax in the Gothic splendour of York Minster, northern England.
The congregation of some 2,000 people broke into applause and cheers and some shed tears.
Highlighting the divisions which dog the Church despite a painstaking reconciliation process, a lone conservative opposed to women as bishops had earlier disrupted the ceremony.
When asked by Archbishop John Sentamu if it was their will that Lane become a bishop, the congregation responded: “It is!”, but one man shouted out: “No, it’s not in the Bible!”
In a statement which had been pre-prepared in anticipation of a possible protest, Sentamu then told the man that his challenge had no basis in law and continued with the ceremony.
Church spokesman Arun Arora described the man, conservative clergyman Paul Williamson, as a “serial protester”, adding: “It’s a contrast between a lone voice protesting and a sea of voices in affirmation.”
Lane, dressed in black, white and violet vestments, swore oaths of allegiance and canonical obedience during the two-hour ceremony also attended by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the top bishop in the Church of England.
At the end, she was handed a pastoral staff by Sentamu, who told her: “Keep watch over the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit has appointed you shepherd.”
– Tears and smiles –
Moderates hope Lane’s appointment will be the start of a new chapter for the Church as it struggles for relevance in a multi-cultural society where only six percent of the population regularly attends an act of worship.
After the ceremony, she said she was thrilled to have shared a day “of prayer and of party” with so many people.
“I cannot properly express how encouraged I have been in the weeks since the announcement of my nomination by the thousands of messages I have received,” Lane said.
“Many of those who have been in touch have little or no contact with the Church of England.”
Her optimism was shared by the dozens of female clergy who attended the consecration along with their male counterparts and members of the public.
“It’s absolutely wonderful — we have been working towards this since 1994,” Canon Cynthia Dowdle, canon chancellor of Liverpool Cathedral, told AFP, referring to the date when female priests were first ordained.
“Tears were streaming — I have a pocketful of damp tissues here.”
Fran Wakefield, a vicar in Stamford Bridge near York, said she had witnessed “history being made”.
“I hope it says there’s a place for absolutely everyone in the church, whatever their status,” she added.
The Church of England is seen as the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has some 85 million followers in 165 countries.
Anglican churches in countries including the United States, Canada and Australia have already appointed women bishops.
The General Synod voted in July to allow female bishops, after decades of disagreement.
But under a reconciliation process led by Welby, parishes which do not want to be led by a woman because of their theological convictions will be able to vote to be tended by a man instead.
The scale of the divisions was highlighted when the Christian Today website reported that the bishops who laid hands on Lane will be asked not to do the same for a conservative priest being made a bishop later this month.
The bishops have been asked to show “gracious restraint” as traditionalists believe that they should not be touched by those who have touched a woman in a sacramental context.
Moderates in the Church hope that Lane’s appointment will soon be followed by that of more female bishops.
Asked if she expected more women to be appointed this year, Dowdle said: “Goodness yes, it will have to be or there will be a big protest.”