Women bishops: debate: ‘I know people say that bishops can’t be trusted, but I think I can’

by
09 July 2008

Reports by Glyn Paflin, Bill Bowder and Pat Ashworth. Photos by Sam Atkins

Waiting in the rain: the queue for the public gallery during the women-bishops debate

Waiting in the rain: the queue for the public gallery during the women-bishops debate

DEBATE on women bishops took place over three days at the Synod in York, beginning on Friday evening, with a presentation of the various options by the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch. These were discussed on Saturday morning, first in groups, then in full Synod. The Synod then went on to vote on the options during Monday afternoon and evening.

Bishop McCulloch began by acknowledging that many members might be approaching the debates with “weariness and heaviness of heart”. Reaching a view was “serious business” when divided views were held. There was a cost involved in every option.

It would be surprising if minds were changed in the intervening hours. The drafting group had found that their understanding of various groups had deepened. The Bishop emphasised that the House of Bishops’ outcome had not removed any of the possibilities in the report. For some, a national code of practice went too far in national prescription. Others had made it clear that a code of practice in itself would not go far enough: new arrangements and stronger structures would be required.

Synod members were called to be makers of the law, and needed to understand the status, enforceability, and reliability of each of the special arrangements. The Bishop hoped that speakers might be influenced by things they had heard in the group work, “rather than reading out unchanged speeches that have been written”.

The Bishop told the Synod: “Don’t be frightened to face the hard questions. . . Don’t duck choices.” The question was: “What sort of Church do we want to be?” Was the Synod prepared to put in place “open-ended arrangements, with some basis in legislation, that recognise that the two sets of convictions will remain authentic expressions of Anglicanism for as far ahead as anyone can see?

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“Or, as some now argue, is the admission of women bishops the moment when any special arrangements have to explicitly be of a non-binding, pastoral, and designedly transitional nature?”

Synod members did not choose their Saturday morning groups but were allocated to them, and heard a variety of viewpoints. “It was very good. People were very gentle with one another,” one woman priest said afterwards.

They also received a note from the Church of England’s Legal Office on codes of practice. This explained that the distinction between a statutory and non-statutory code was a subtle one. Even a non-statutory code would have to be taken into account by decision-makers, or else the decision itself was liable to be set aside by the courts on an application for judicial review.

But the legislation itself would generally prescribe the process by which a statutory code came into being, and this created the possibility of requiring more onerous consultation and approval processes; and special-approval mechanisms could be prescribed in the legislation for subsequent amending of the code.

The House of Lords had ruled, in another matter, that a statutory code had to be considered with “great care”, and was more than mere advice. Cogent reasons had to be shown for any departure from it.

INTRODUCING the full debate later on Saturday morning, Bishop McCulloch said that the legislative drafting group had consisted of four members of the House of Laity, three members of the House of Clergy, and just two bishops. “Monday’s motion does of course bear an unambiguously episcopal imprint.” Saturday’s debate was to clear the air and prepare the ground before the “hard choices” on Monday.

The report had been unanimously agreed, and he was appreciative of the way it had been welcomed as “even-handed, clear, and comprehensive”. The disappointment was perhaps that the group had not managed to “find the famous stone that turneth all to gold”. It was an agreed analysis, but did not offer a view on which option should be pursued. If the group had tried to offer a recommendation, “I have no doubt we would have had to have majority reports.”

His group had teased out the arguments, produced illustrative versions of three possible draft Measures, and described what might go into a statutory code of practice with a statutory basis, and what issues would have to be resolved if the Synod decided to create new dioceses.

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The group’s first key judgement was a clear warning about the dangers of further delay, which “could further upset such equilibrium as has been achieved since 1994”. The Synod votes of 2005 and 2006 had already created uncertainty, and further uncertainty now would, in the group’s view, be distracting and unhelpful.

Second: the case for the simplest statutory approach, with no binding national arrangement beyond, perhaps, a non-statutory code of practice agreed by the House of Bishops, deserved to be taken seriously. It would have logic and clarity, and be consistent with what some other Anglican Churches and ecumenical partners had already done. But the group urged the Synod to be clear about the consequences of such an approach, which would represent a very significant new direction and the withdrawal of assurances offered 15 years ago.

Third: it advised that if the Synod concluded that a structural solution was necessary, then that should best be achieved by creating special dioceses. This would be a big step, only to be taken if the Synod concluded that what could be achieved within existing structures would fall short of the mark.

Fourth: if, as previous motions had suggested, the Synod was interested in exploring some middle ground, there were four possible variations covering quite a range of possibilities. The question about all four was whether one or other of them could be acceptable as some kind of bearable anomaly or whether they would all constitute some kind of “muddle in the middle”.

“Muddling through” was a British tradition, but there was still perplexity about how to distinguish between good muddle and bad muddle. “When does principled pragmatism and a generosity of spirit topple over into theological incoherence and the loss of any clear guiding principles?”

The group’s answer was the section in the report in which it deconstructed some widespread misunderstandings about Canon A4 and suggested three new boundary posts, “which might just possibly enable some creativity in the middle ground without the loss of our ecclesiological bearings”.

The three key ingredients of any solution would be, first, a clear statement that in admitting women to the episcopate the Church of England was now fully committed to opening all orders of ministry to men and women.

The second would need to be an acceptance on the part of those with theological reservations about women’s ordination that the Church of England had, nevertheless, decided to admit men and women equally to holy orders and that those whom the Church had duly ordained and appointed to office were lawful office-holders and deserving of due respect and lawful obedience.

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The second would need to be an acceptance on the part of those with theological reservations about women’s ordination that the Church of England had, nevertheless, decided to admit men and women equally to holy orders and that those whom the Church had duly ordained and appointed to office were lawful office-holders and deserving of due respect and lawful obedience.

The third would need to be an acknowledgement by those in favour of women’s ordination that the theological convictions of those unable to receive this development were nevertheless within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition, and that, therefore, those who held them should be able to continue to receive pastoral and sacramental care in a way consistent with those convictions.

The group had set out what a new Canon A4 along these lines might look like. Its view was that a new canon along these lines could be an important part of any legislative package.

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) suggested that a code of practice would be inadequate, because it would lead to a repeal of the 1992/93 provisions. The Pilling report had highlighted a discrimination [against conservatives] in senior appointments, despite the promise that this would not happen. A code of practice operated on the basis of trust, and that trust had not been substantiated.

There were ethical concerns, too. Reneging on promises was a serious breach of trust. Ecclesiology flowed from theology: “order within the persons of the Trinity” should be reflected in the order of ministry within the Church. Mr MacLeay was also concerned at suggested changes to Canon A4: omitted from the new Canon was the phrase “not repugnant to the word of God”. The theological position put forward on the admission of women to the episcopate was repugnant to the word of God: that was the struggle.

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) had received “Reform propaganda” quoting selective passages from Galatians but omitting others. For the past 15 years, people had been graded under legislation. It must be the same ladder for all, in a Church with only one order. Was there a fear of allowing the Spirit to roam free? “We need tradition; we need to reflect it is shifting,” he said. “Let us do it not to embrace modernism and the spirit of the age, or to overturn tradition for the sake of it, but because it is the right thing to do.”

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Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) had received “Reform propaganda” quoting selective passages from Galatians but omitting others. For the past 15 years, people had been graded under legislation. It must be the same ladder for all, in a Church with only one order. Was there a fear of allowing the Spirit to roam free? “We need tradition; we need to reflect it is shifting,” he said. “Let us do it not to embrace modernism and the spirit of the age, or to overturn tradition for the sake of it, but because it is the right thing to do.”

The Archdeacon of Berkshire, the Ven. Norman Russell (Oxford), said that although he, personally, did not have problems with the ordination of women to the episcopate, he could not say to those who did have such problems, “We have no need of you.” He could not say it to Sam Philpotts, who had done such significant work in inner-city Plymouth, nor could he say that to Fr Baker or to Canon Killwick, nor to Prebendary Houlding and to other friends without whose contributions Synod would be immeasurably poorer.

It was a matter of justice not just for women, but also for those who had traditional views. There was no point in wasting the Synod’s time and money if there was no hope of achieving the two-thirds needed in all the Houses of Synod for the legislation. The Synod had a proper interest in knowing if there was a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops on a national code of practice.

It was also highly unlikely that the code would get a two-thirds majority when it came to a vote if it failed to keep faith with the promises made, and did not assure traditionalists. The whole thing should be sent back to the House of Bishops, or, better, the code of practice should be completely eliminated and provision made by Measure for the traditionalists.

Rachel Beck (Lincoln) said she was wholeheartedly in favour of women bishops while wanting pastoral arrangements for those who were not. She was very concerned that no-go areas would be set up for women which would lead to schism, not unity, as one part of the Church did not recognise the sacraments of the other. It would create two Churches.

Men ordained by a woman bishop would need to be re-ordained if they were to serve under a bishop in the newly set-up dioceses, if that was the case.

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Diana Taylor (Bath & Wells) spoke of the moving moment on Christmas night when, for the first time a woman priest and she had stood at the altar to celebrate communion. No one had objected. Yet, only 15 years before, the parish was concerned whether a woman Reader could read the Gospel. If women had received a vocation, and that vocation was tested and accepted by the Church, “who has the right to deny it?”

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said that she would not leave the Church of England if every single bishop was a woman, but she understood the position of those who could not accept that, because they believed what the Church had always believed. She was experiencing cognitive dissonance, because her heart told her to find an accommodation, but her head said that no accommodation would work. “We have a circle that simply cannot be squared.”

The decision was: which was more important — whether to keep everyone or to have women bishops? The Synod had not actually yet decided they wanted women bishops. They were not looking at a simple schism, “but a potential shattering of the Church right now”. It was “like a brick dropped on a plate-glass window”, and would be “more divisive than we can possibly contemplate”.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that historical promises should give way to the promise of an eschatological future in which there was no distinction between men and women. Eschatology “conditionalised” any promise made by humans. “Church order must be future-directed as well as historical.” The Church should not structure her orders in such a way as denied that.

“Professor MacClean and Archbishop Carey were making promises that could not be kept because it bound the Church to history and not to eschatology.”

Kenneth Hill (Chester) said that it would be a disgrace if the Synod, while making its ecumenical partners welcome, rejected some of its own members, leaving them feeling isolated, rejected, and humiliated.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd John Goddard (Northern Suffragans), declared: “I am not packing my bags.” He rejoiced in the work of the Manchester report, which had looked at the needs of the Church in a careful, wary, and measured way. But consideration must be given to when it was the time to push boundaries and when the time to know that dialogue had not run its course.

The Manchester group must be asked to do further work on what “free dioceses” would look like, and how the Church of England would remain in unity, celebrating its diversity, if the college of bishops remained divided. “There is not one bishop I would not be glad to take communion with,” he said. After women bishops, that would not be the case. Fracture that, and you fractured the Church.

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The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), was glad that the Synod was into the difficult part of the debate process: the legislating and refining of what was already there. He declared himself passionately committed to women bishops — “I want them yesterday if possible.” It was not at all repugnant to the word of God. There were women whose episcope was already evident, and he wanted them to be bishops in a Church that was free of discrimination. But the provisions made for those opposed had been honourable and genuine: “We can’t renege on them. We can’t go back.” It was a case of either saying to opponents: “You’ve got ten years to sort yourselves out,” or of giving guarantees to help them stay. “I want those opposed to stay.”

A code of practice would be a very fragile and unhelpful way of doing that, and would not serve what had been promised.

A code of practice would be a very fragile and unhelpful way of doing that, and would not serve what had been promised.

Ian O’Hara (Coventry) described himself as fortunate, as a layman unable in conscience to accept the ministry of women, to be in a diocese where he was generally received generously and charitably by those who took a different view. He remained a loyal Anglican, and wished to continue to do so. He was disappointed that the report revisited the single-clause option, which the Synod had unanimously rejected three times. Being Anglican was not just about sharing the same views, but living in diversity. The Synod must provide proper and generous provision.

Tim Allen (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) had firmly believed in the right of parishes to pass Resolutions A and B until he had been a member of the pastoral committee in a team benefice. Since 1993, it had been the case that one parish alone in a benefice had an absolute right to pass Resolution B to prevent all the other parishes enjoying the ministry of women priests.

In urban and suburban ministries, a PCC’s decision on this generally affected only its own parish, fencing off only itself. “In rural dioceses, large areas and many churches can be made no-go areas for women priests. In effect, dog-in-a-manger rules.” Mr Allen was convinced that a code of practice was the only way forward.

The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin (London) wanted to ask: “How can I and the work that I do be repugnant to the God who has called me to a life of ministry and service? Can this be the same God whom I serve?”

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The Synod could go on having reports from Rochester, Guildford, Manchester — why not all the diocesan bishops? The Church was never going to agree on this — disagreement had always been part of its history — and if people meant “Not in my lifetime,” they should say so.

Let them be adults, she said: if there were people who felt that the Church was no longer what they wanted it to be, it should be accepted that they were no longer going to be part of it.

Professor Helen Leathard (Blackburn) commended the working group for its clarity. While reflecting prayerfully on the draft legislation, she had found insights in the New Testament. In the Gospels, she saw Jesus removing obstacles to women’s leadership roles. There was the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well; and there were Mary and Martha.

Since the legislation was carried in 1992, many devout Christians had come to see things differently. The only way forward was to have a single-clause Measure, but a code of practice regarded as theologically valid, trustworthy, and pastorally responsive.

John Ward (London), a lawyer, advised the Synod: “Let’s not give the way we are a Church, the way we are together, over to the lawyers.” It needed to be possible for the dialogue to continue. He was not suggesting that there should not be arrangements: a code of practice could be vague or precise. It could require mediation to take place, and enforce a mediated solution. “Let’s not forget that the Act of Synod is a non-binding, non-statutory code of practice.” The devil was in the detail of the code. He would be voting for a code of practice, and looking for it to come forward in detail.

The Revd Dr Jane Craske (Methodist Church) was grateful that the Church of England was listening to its ecumenical partners, who had made their views known in their responses to Cardinal Kasper’s address. The Synod had to make the decision that was right for the Christian congregation it was trying to be at this time and in this context. The gospel and culture were not entirely separate packages; and having regard to the cultural context was not entirely different from having regard to the tradition.

Joanna Monckton (Lichfield) was grateful for the clarity of the report, and noted that the group had not had time to go fully into the final option of special dioceses. In 1992, the legislation had passed by only two votes in the House of Laity. She had not received communion for weeks afterwards. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time had said that those who could not accept the change would have to leave; but then Archbishop Habgood had urged them to stay, the two parts of the Church “bound together like two strands of a rope”.

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Were all the promises made then now to be broken? What a betrayal it would be, she said, if the Synod voted for a single-clause Measure with only a code of practice.

Keith Malcouronne (Guildford) spoke about the Manchester group’s proposed revision of Canon A4, which aimed to promote mutual flourishing. The vital words on the motion mandating the group had been: “both loyal Anglicans”. He found guidance in Romans 14’s words about the stronger and weaker brother: “Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.” Let the Synod work together for building up and genuine mutual recognition.

Dr Roger Fry (Europe) was sorry that it omitted any attempt to quantify the cost of the various options. Some dioceses were already on the verge of a financial crisis. It would be irresponsible to contemplate new structures without costing them. The report was also lacking in assurances that the unity of the Church of England would not be destroyed. If there were two groups of bishops, and the all-male group, who ordained men only, did not take part in worship with the other group, then there would be a House of Bishops in which some bishops were not in communion with others.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) suggested that it might well be the case, at the end of Monday’s debate, that the Synod concluded that it was not possible to proceed yet: that it was not suitable to have bishops whose ministry was seriously qualified; and that, if the Synod did go ahead, a “significant minority would be unable to exist as Christians engaged in mission and knowing the assurance of God’s love in this part of the Lord’s vineyard.”

Canon Anne Stevens (Southwark) welcomed the report’s affirmation of Canon A4 on the validity of women’s orders, and wanted similar work done on the legal and theological notion of sacramental assurance. The report said that those unable to accept women’s ministry fell within the spectrum of Anglican tradition. But how did this affect sacramental assurance? Article XXVI said that the effectiveness of the sacrament was not affected by the unworthiness of the minister.

Gerald O’Brien (Rochester) said that the majority in Synod was minded to welcome women as eligible for the episcopate, but it also had to consider “unintended consequences”.

“This is the stuff of which nightmares are easily made,” he warned. In 1992, when the Synod voted for provision for those who could not accept women’s ministry to the priesthood, the Synod had expected that those who dissented would soon retire or die.

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But that was not what had happened. Almost 1000 parishes had now passed Resolution B, and there was now a degree of disunity that was unparalleled in the Church of England. The Synod could proceed simply to vote to allow women bishops. But if it failed to provide for those who could not accept this, then “some well-meaning prelate from elsewhere” would make the provision for those for whom provision had not been made.

The map of the dioceses could end up looking like Emmental cheese, but it could do so whether the Synod made provision or not. It would be better if the Synod had a hand in what it looked like.

Ann Turner (Europe) deliberately made a reference to “special” arrangements for those opposed. “These are the norms, and have been for 15 years.” Working in Europe, she still needed this provision, and emphasised: “We cannot afford further division or to stretch the fragility of Anglicanism in Europe, already stretched to breaking-point.”

The Vicar-General of York, His Honour Thomas Coningsby, wanted to work towards women bishops as soon as reasonably possible, but also to keep within the Church of England those opposed. The 1992 provisions had not been made reluctantly, but because that had been the desire, and on a long-term basis. The importance of the Catholic position had been understood. Strong and enforceable provision was needed, “done with a glad heart”.

A statutory code of practice would work perfectly well, with provisions in the Measure enabling it to be complied with. Such a code could be altered by the House of Bishops without the need to go back to Parliament. It also kept the priorities right: welcome first, with honourable provision second.

A statutory code of practice would work perfectly well, with provisions in the Measure enabling it to be complied with. Such a code could be altered by the House of Bishops without the need to go back to Parliament. It also kept the priorities right: welcome first, with honourable provision second.

Lorna Ashworth (Chichester), as a woman who did not support women’s ordination, said that there was a need to be honest about the consequences of a code of practice. She profoundly disagreed with a view expressed by WATCH, that in future it would not be acceptable to ordain anyone opposed to women’s ordination. It was not an issue of gender discrimination.

The Revd Andrew Watson (London) said that he was an Evangelical in favour of women’s consecration, and wanted to get on with it. While personally saddened that some would never recognise his wife’s orders, he believed that legal provision would have to be made.

The Revd Alastair Cutting (Chichester) recommended the example of the Church of New Zealand and Aotearoa for an understanding of free, extra dioceses in the Church of England. It was a “brilliant model”, though hard work and certainly not a panacea.

The Synod took note of the report.

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