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Women bishops: weathervane debate next month

13 January 2012

by Ed Thornton

HOW much provision the Church of England makes for opponents of women bishops will be thrashed out in a key debate at the General Synod next month.

The draft legislation on women bishops returns to the General Synod (meeting in Westminster from 6 to 9 February), having been approved by a majority of dioceses (News, 21 October). It is the first time that the present membership of the Synod has had a chance to debate the legislation since it was elected 18 months ago.

The key debate is on the Wednesday afternoon, when the Synod will consider two diocesan-synod motions which take opposing views on whether the House of Bishops should amend the legislation when it next meets in May.

A motion tabled by the Manchester diocesan synod requests that the House of Bishops amend the legislation in the way proposed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2010 (News, 10 July 2010). Their chief proposal, which Synod narrowly voted down at the time, was that the authority of a traditionalist bishop requested by a parish would derive from the Measure, and not be delegated from the diocesan bishop, who might be a woman.

A motion from Southwark diocesan synod, which will be presented as an amendment to the Manchester motion, takes the opposite line. It asks the House of Bishops to note the “significant support” that the draft legislation has received from the dioceses, and make no further amendments to the legislation whatsoever.

The Synod has no power at this late stage to dictate what the House of Bishops does or does not do to the legislation, but it would be likely to take note of what Synod members request.

The secretary-general of the Synod, William Fittall, at a press briefing at Church House on Friday, said: “Anything Synod passes will not be binding on the House of Bishops, but it will be highly significant. There are bound to be votes in this debate, and people will be looking to see who votes which way. . . The only people who can make significant amendments are the House of Bishops. . . Synod can give it a steer.”

Mr Fittall said that the House of Bishops “may or may not make some amendments”, which could “range from the pretty small through to the very substantial”.

If the Bishops do amend the legislation, it will be up to the “group of six” — the two Archbishops, the chair and vice-chair of the House of Laity, and the two prolocutors — to decide, after legal advice, whether those amendments have changed the substance of the legislation. If so, it would have to be sent back to the dioceses for further consideration.

The “group of six” was invited to “offer any sort of steer or view” before the February Synod and the House of Bishops Meeting in May, but decided not to. “And that is that,” Mr Fittall said. “People may wish they would do so, but they’re not going to.”

The Synod will also debate a draft Code of Practice, issued by a working group under the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. The group’s report proposes that, if the women bishops legislation is passed, that the Archbishops and Bishops will “commit themselves to maintain a supply of bishops” to minister to traditionalists.

Other items on the agenda at the February Synod include the reform of the House of Lords, assisted dying, and healthcare.

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