As I was crossing the River Ouse on my way to York Minster, I reflected on how the Church of England was about to cross the River Rubicon – when Julius Caesar marched his army across the Rubicon into Roman territory there was no turning back, so, too, with the consecration of its first female bishop, the Church of England was about to be changed for ever.
All those involved in the consecration of Libby Lane as bishop rose to the occasion magnificently. The Minster staff were welcoming and upbeat, the atmosphere was charged with energy and the service was beautifully planned and prayerfully conducted. There were moments of deep silence alongside times of great exuberance. The hymns ranged from ancient to modern, the choir sang an exciting setting to the Mass by Jonathan Dove, we were treated to a moving rendition of Isaac Watt’s classic hymn (one of the finest in the English language to my mind) ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ accompanied by a treble saxophone and guitar. This was Anglican worship at its best. Bishop Libby carried the occasion with a mixture of humility, confidence in her calling and joy.
There were a number of iconic moments. The consecration service of the first female bishop in the Church of England was being conducted by the Church of England’s first black Archbishop. There were TV screens peppered about the place on which the BBC was inserting pictures of the art and architecture of the Minster during the service: former English kings appeared to be actively interested in the events, while departed bishops continued to sleep on their tombs. After the congregation eagerly said that they supported Libby’s consecration as bishop, somebody stepped forward and objected: this was a reminder of the opposition faced by women at every stage of their painful journey to the episcopate. After the interruption, the Archbishop of York calmly read the authority which instructed him to go ahead with the consecration while Libby, facing the congregation, stoically looked into the distance: when the Archbishop asked the congregation again whether they supported the consecration, the roar of affirmation was so great that the bishops slumbering on their tombs seemed to stir.
When the living bishops joined with the Archbishop of York in the laying on of hands, Libby was engulfed in a sea of red and white: not only are these the colours of her favourite football team, Manchester United, but they are also the colours of celebration and martyrdom, both of which are part of faithful Christian discipleship.
The die is cast. The Church of England has crossed the Rubicon. Opening up all of its ministries to women will have a profound effect on its mission and ministry, releasing unimaginable gifts and possibilities. For me it was a joy to be present and a privilege, with my fellow bishops, to be part of the sea of red and white. There will be other issues to be faced, other hills to climb and other Rubicons to be crossed, but we can now allow ourselves a little time to savour the occasion and the event and to thank God for it.