July Synod may pave way for women bishops

by
02 November 2006

WOMEN BISHOPS could not realistically be authorised in the Church of England before 2010, says the House of Bishops.

In a four-page report, signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the House confirms a view expressed by the General Synod's secretary general, William Fittall, at the launch last year of the Rochester report on the subject ( News, 5 November).

Indeed, the House says, it would be "premature" at next month's General Synod meeting, "only three months after the publication of such a substantial report", to reach any decisions about the way forward. About two and three-quarter hours have been set aside on the Wednesday morning for a take-note motion on the Rochester report.

The motion will be moved by the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who chaired the House of Bishops' working party on women in the episcopate, which produced the report that bears his name, Women Bishops in the Church of England?

In the afternoon, at 2.30, the Synod has until 3.45 to debate a motion in the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which says: "That the Synod welcome the report from the House of Bishops (GS 1568) and invite the business committee to make sufficient time available at the July group of sessions for Synod to determine whether it wishes to set in train the process for removing the legal obstacles to the ordination of women to the episcopate."

The House of Bishops, in its brief document, thanks Dr Nazir-Ali and his colleagues for their "great care" in producing the report. It agreed with the Synod's business committee that the Rochester report itself should receive a "major" debate.

The Archbishop acknowledges the existence of five diocesan-synod motions indicating "a wish in many quarters to test the mind of the Synod at an early opportunity on whether the Church of England should embark on the legislative process". The House of Bishops, he says, "is agreed that such an opportunity should be provided in July".

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If the Synod then votes to proceed, it will fall to the next Synod, to be elected in September, to consider the legislation. "Consideration might also be needed for codes of practice. Decisions as between the various options would, therefore, best be taken early in the life of the new Synod in the light of a considered assessment by the House of what the consequences of each of them would be."

The House of Bishops at its meeting this month, Dr Williams says, had an opportunity for a "substantial discussion on matters of principle and began to consider the implications of the options set out in the [Rochester] report". It will need to discuss further in May, he says.

In July, one of the bishops will move a motion, the text of which is yet to be settled. If the Synod votes in favour of proceeding, the Bishops want the Synod to be able to determine at those sessions what the next steps will be. "Given the imminent end of the quinquennium, a possible option would be to invite the House of Bishops, in consultation with the Archbishops' Council, to report to the Synod by January 2006 the assessment which it is making of the various options."

This, says Dr Williams, would pave the way for a debate perhaps in February 2006, when the Synod would be able to reach its own view of the options, and determine the basis on which it wanted the necessary legislation drafted. A drafting group could then be set up.

A Draft Measure and Canon would be prepared. These would need to receive first consideration by the Synod, and be referred to a revision committee; be debated again in Synod, and then referred to the diocesan synods. A majority of these would have to approve the legislation for it to proceed further. The business committee would report back on the dioceses' voting. There could follow references to the Convocations and House of Laity under Article 7. Final approval by the General Synod would require a two-thirds majority in each House. The Measure would then need to go for scrutiny to Parliament, including the Ecclesiastical Committee, before it could receive Royal Assent and the Synod could promulge the Canon.

"Any timescale is necessarily speculative at this stage," says Dr Williams. "A reference to diocesan synods requires around 18 months, and that means that the synodical process from establishing the drafting group through to Final Approval cannot realistically take less than about four years."

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