THERE were few surprises in the report, published last weekend, of the revision committee that has been dealing with the draft legislation for women bishops.
As the committee signalled at the last General Synod meeting in February, no agreement has been possible on any provision for those opposed to the ordination of women beyond a Code of Practice.
On Saturday, the committee produced its final report of 142 pages, with a draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure. The report describes in detail the committee’s deliberations, together with the arguments that produced the draft Measure.
In July, the General Synod will be able to debate the Measure line by line in the revision stage of the process. The amended Measure will then be sent to the dioceses. It will need to be approved by a majority of the dioceses in order to return to the General Synod for final approval, which requires a two-thirds majority in all Houses of the Synod. The prediction is that 2014 is the earliest that a woman might be consecrated as a bishop.
The new arrangement
The Measure contains the bones of the new arrangement. The Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure of 1993, including resolutions A and B, is to be repealed. (These prevent a woman from presiding at holy communion, and from being appointed as incumbent, respectively. Resolution C, to petition for extended episcopal oversight, was not in the Measure, but in the 1993 Act of Synod.)
In its place, a parish can submit a “Letter of Request” for a male bishop to provide “the celebration of the sacraments and other divine service” and “pastoral care to the clergy and parishioners”. In addition, when a vacancy occurs, the parish can submit a second Letter of Request for the appointment of a male priest.
Such Letters of Request can be issued only if they are agreed at a meeting where at least two-thirds of the PCC and the incumbent are present. The agreement requires just a simple majority.
There is no provision at present for a parish to be able to stipulate that it is ministered to by priests and bishops who have been ordained or consecrated by men. Nor is there any longer a suggestion that the Archbishops create a suffragan see to be occupied by someone who does not ordain women.
At episcopal level, every diocesan bishop will be expected to publish a schedule setting out his or her provision for those unwilling to be ministered to by a women priest or bishop — in the language of the report, those with “conscientious difficulties”. If the bishop is the one with conscientious difficulties, and has indicated in a formal statement that he will not ordain women as priests, he must publish a schedule setting out his provision for the ordination, support, and pastoral care of women priests in the diocese.
The report talks of “an exceptionally demanding process for all of us who have served as members of the committee”. The revision committee met on 16 occasions over the past 12 months, mostly for day-long sessions. It considered what it called an “avalanche of proposals”: 114 submissions from Synod members, and a further 183 submissions from others. Everyone who made a submission was invited to speak at the meeting when it was debated.
The report says: “It has, inevitably at times, also been a painful experience. We have been wrestling with deep disagreements where matters of fundamental conviction are engaged. Our report is therefore, necessarily, an account of discussions that led to decisions reached by majority votes. Given the underlying strength of views, it was never realistic to expect that, on the key issues, unanimity would be possible.”
The committee coped with the submissions by organising them under five different headings, depending on the proposed solution:
• to create additional dioceses for those unable on grounds of conviction to accept the episcopal ministry of women;
• to make provision by way of a new society or societies with statutory recognition;
• to make provision by way of the transfer or vesting of certain episcopal functions in bishops other than the diocesan bishops;
• to make arrangements by way of delegation from the diocesan bishop under a statutory code of practice (the approach taken in the draft Measure); and
• to frame the simplest possible legislation needed to allow women to become bishops (often referred to as the “single-clause” approach).
The committee proceeded to give each of these options a red, amber, or green light. At one stage, options two and three were looked on with favour, as was reported at the time. As the report puts it: “We had, initially, voted to go beyond the draft Measure and vest certain functions by law in bishops other than the diocesan bishop.
“But that conclusion had proved incapable of implementation because all the votes on particular categories of functions that might be transferred had been lost.”
It also considered ditching the concept of a Code of Practice and opting for the simplest possible Measure. “But we had, in the end, voted clearly for an alternative approach . . . which retained a statutory Code of Practice, removed some of the provisions of the original Measure but added a statutory duty on bishops, having regard to the national Code of Practice, to draw up diocesan schemes.”