Popping champagne corks, hugging and crying, women priests toasted victory on Monday after the Church of England voted in favour of allowing female bishops for the first time in its nearly 500-year history.
The celebrations started in the hall at the General Synod in York, northern England, which erupted into cheers as soon as the result was announced.
The church’s de facto number two, Archbishop of York John Sentamu, led then delegates in singing the South African hymn “We Are Marching In The Light Of God” as some clapped and swayed along.
The party carried on outside as female priests and their supporters took in the scale of a change pushed through after half a century of debate over women’s place in the church.
“There is just this wonderful sense of relief,” said Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a vicar in northeast England and vice-chair of campaign group Women In The Church (WATCH).
“This huge grin is spreading over my face. It just feels fabulous. This has been hanging over us for the whole time I’ve been ordained and it just feels wonderful.”
Next to her, a male colleague cracked open a bottle of champagne and unfolded a tea towel reading: “A woman’s place is in the House of Bishops”, a pun on the old saying: “A woman’s place is in the home.”
Threlfall-Holmes said the church felt “freer already”.
“I felt like I had been in a room with a really low ceiling… and it just feels like suddenly we’re in a big spacious room and the sky’s the limit,” she added.
-’I can breathe again’-
As more people emerged from the hall, swelling the crowd to around 150, there were cries of “Hallelujah!” and “here’s to women bishops!”
Some were lost for words and simply hugged each other, shedding tears of joy.
Claire Turner, who works as a junior priest in the west Midlands, was taking a deep breath of relief after the result.
“I can breathe for the first time in about a fortnight,” said Turner, sporting a bright blue shirt underneath her dog collar and cropped hair.
“You just feel like you’ve been holding your breath for a fortnight and suddenly you feel you can breathe again.”
She thought the move would deepen the spiritual life of the church.
“Because we’re all made in God’s image, if you’ve only got half the human race leading the church, you don’t fully represent God,” she added.
“This allows us to be more of who God wants us to be.”
Lindsay Southern, another female priest from West Yorkshire in northern England, described the vote as a fantastic result.
“I feel like I just want to sit down with a quiet cup of tea and process it because I didn’t think I was sure it would happen,” she said.
“We have got so many talented and gifted women who will contribute so much.”
Most of those celebrating said it would take time for the full impact of women bishops to be felt in the church — the first ones are not even likely to be appointed until the end of this year.
But just for tonight, the focus would be on champagne and celebrations.
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