Committee revises its view on women bishops — again

19 November 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Still at it: the revision committee has not yet agreed the women bishops legislation

Still at it: the revision committee has not yet agreed the women bishops legislation

THE draft women-bishops legisla­tion may not be ready for the February Synod, after the revision committee failed to agree last week on which powers should be given by law to bishops who would oversee tradi­tion­alist parishes.

At their previous meeting, in October, members of the committee revived the idea of vesting such bishops with legal rights, which the General Synod had rejected in July 2008. The move drew approval from traditionalists, but accusations of betrayal from WATCH (Women and the Church) (News, 16 October).

But at last week’s meeting, when it came to deciding which functions should be vested, members voted each one down in turn, leaving nothing. Sharp exchanges reportedly took place across the table as the work of the two previous meetings was, in effect, undone. Staff are left with the task of rewriting the legislation. “The timetable is now extremely tight” for February, the committee has acknowledged.

In a statement, it said: “The effect of the committee’s decision is there­fore that such arrangements as are made for those unable to receive the episcopal ministry of women will need to be by way of delegation from the diocesan bishop rather than vesting.

“There remain important issues for the committee to determine at its forthcoming meetings over the shape of the proposed legislation in the light of this decision, in par­ticular whether to retain a statutory code of practice or adopt the simplest possible legislation.”

The committee goes on to state that it will “report to the full General Synod at the conclusion of its work”. Thereafter, the Synod will debate its proposals and has the option of approving, amending, or sending the legislation back to the revision committee for further consideration.

Voting figures will not be released until the committee makes its final report to the Synod. In anticipation of the question why it issues state-ments at all when the decisions keep changing, a C of E clarification said: “Synod members coming to speak to amendments they have submitted have the right to know when there has been a major change affecting their proposals. Since such decisions will quickly become widely known, the committee concluded it was best to put the facts on public record.”

Committee members are not free to comment on discussions. Preb­end­ary David Houlding, of the Synod’s Catholic Group, who was an observer at the October meeting, said on Tuesday that the issuing of a press statement just before the Archbishop of Canterbury went to Rome for a meeting with the Pope was extraordinary.

“It compromises his visit, and puts him in a very difficult position,” he said. “We don’t understand the procedure of this committee, what’s going on. They can’t make up their minds and haven’t got a clear policy to follow. We don’t really know where they’ll end up. The committee is not listening to or following the lead of the Bishop of Manchester or of the two Arch­bishops, both of whom favour some­thing along the lines of a transfer of jurisdiction.”

Catholics who argued the case “carefully and theologically” were constantly outvoted, and those with broad sympathies were frustrated by the process, said Prebendary Hould­ing. “I would have thought the Rome business would have added impetus to get something on the table, but it has done quite the opposite.”

Christina Rees, who chairs WATCH, expressed delight at the committee’s decision, describing it as “a real breakthrough”. Reform, the conservative Evangelical group, regretted what its chairman, the Revd Rod Thomas, described as “a lost opportunity for peace and unity”. The committee’s decision had “overturned the will of Synod, created the spectre of confrontation, and risks extending the controversy for another five years”, he said.

A paper by the Revd Jonathan Clatworthy for the Modern Church­people’s Union described religious organisations as “the last remaining refuge where men who so wish can legally impose their prejudices”.

Remembrance ban. The Rochester parish of St Mary’s, Swanley, which is under the oversight of the Bishop of Fulham, has been criticised locally for refusing to host a Royal British Legion Remembrance Day service because the branch chaplain taking the service was a woman, the Revd Linda Green.

The Legion had to transfer the service to the Alexandra Banqueting Suite. Jacky Alan, secretary of its Swanley, Crockenhill and Hextable branch, told the Dartford Times: “It’s outrageous. It’s totally sexist, out­dated, and an insult to all those women who have bravely served and are still serving our country. Every­body was upset and disgusted, be­cause St Mary’s is our parish church.”

A spokeswoman for the diocese said that the legal position was well-documented. “Therefore, it would not be appropriate for a woman to exercise her priestly ministry there.”

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