Women face another delay as committee misses deadline

14 January 2010

by Pat Ashworth

THE draft legislation on women bishops will not be coming before the General Synod for debate next month as scheduled. Instead, the revision committee is expected still to be working on it after Easter. It will not now be debated till July.

In February last year, the Synod asked the revision committee to consider the arrangements, embodied in a statutory code of practice, for those opposed in conscience to women bishops.

At its October 2009 meeting, however, it appeared to move away from the code of practice, and voted for “the vesting by statute of certain functions in bishops with a special responsibility for those with con­scientious difficulties”. The options of an alternative diocese or a regis­tered society for objectors were ruled out, but it appears there was no vote on the adoption of the simplest form of legislation without a statutory code of practice (News, 16 October).

After the move was publicised, there was reportedly confusion among committee members as to what “vesting” involved, and what they had actually voted for. At its November meeting, the committee failed to agree which powers should be ceded legally to bishops who might oversee traditionalist parishes, and voted each function down in turn (News, 20 November).

As a result, a statement after that meeting said: “The committee de­cided, that such arrangements as are made for those unable to receive the episcopal ministry of women will be by way of delegation from the dio­cesan bishop rather than vest­ing.”

The secretary-general of the General Synod, William Fittall, de­clined to comment this week, either about the delay or about the work of the revision committee, in which he is reported to play a significant part. In ad­vance of a pre-Synod briefing on Monday, he considered it would be “discourteous to Synod” for anyone to expound on the committee’s work, a spokesman said, adding that a “running com­mentary” on the process had never been in­tended.

Synod members have voiced their concerns over the delay. Colin Slater, from Southwell & Notting­ham, who has been on the Synod since 1990, said on Tuesday: “I believe many members of Synod will hear this news with incredulity. The meeting at York in July will be the last in the present quinquen­nium, prior to new elections in the autumn, and it cannot be a perfect scenario that the most important single issue facing the Church of England is left so late in the cycle.”

Women and the Church (WATCH) has described the re­vision process as a charade. Chris­tina Rees, who chairs WATCH, said on Tuesday: “I am not alone in being deeply disappointed that the revision committee will not be producing draft legislation for women bishops. I consider there have been major flaws in the entire process, and that Synod — and the Church and its mission — is paying the price for this flawed pro­cess.”

She also criticised the “completely unnecessary requirement of secrecy over something that the whole Church has owned in open debate”.

Prebendary David Houlding, a member of the Synod’s Catholic group, said that the expectation of the revision committee had been “something a little bit more robust in the way of provision. Now what it has done is to unpick more of the legislation,” he said on Wednes­day.

“It’s rather sad that we’re going to spend the last session of this Synod on what will probably be a very difficult debate. My fear is, will we try and squash it all in and therefore not get it right again? We need to have the matter settled, and we haven’t got time on our side. It has to go to a second revision stage now, which probably means a new committee. It’s a mess, and I don’t think it suits anyone from either side to have a delay.”

He did not feel the delay would have much of an impact on those who might be considering the Vatican’s offer of an Ordinariate for unhappy Anglicans, describing it as a “huge distraction from what we’re trying to achieve. The Vatican’s offer doesn’t amount to anything yet. We should be focusing on the synodical process.”


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