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Synod defers vote on women bishops until November


Much to discuss: a priest leaves the debating chamber on Monday

Much to discuss: a priest leaves the debating chamber on Monday

THE General Synod voted on Monday to send the draft women-bishops Measure back to the House of Bishops, and not to vote on final approval until November.

An adjournment motion, moved by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, was carried by a two-thirds majority, after about two-and-a-half hours of debate. The result was 288 in favour, 144 against, with 15 abstentions.

The adjournment motion stated that the debate on final approval should be adjourned so that the House of Bishops could reconsider its amendment to Clause 5 of the Measure. The amendment, with regard to the selection of male bishops or priests for parishes issuing a Letter of Request, requires guidance from the House of Bishops on "ministry . . . consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women" which were the basis of the request.

Shortly after the adjournment vote, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, told the Synod that the House of Bishops would meet on 12 and 13 September to review the amendments it had made to the legislation. The Synod will meet in November to vote on final approval. A notice paper to Synod members estimated that the cost of the November sitting would be between £200,000 and £210,000.

The Synod had been scheduled to vote on final approval on Monday. On Sunday afternoon, the steering committee indicated that it would ask the Synod to postpone the historic vote, so that the House of Bishops could reconsider the amendment to Clause 5.

On Monday morning, shortly after the chairman of the steering committee, the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, moved the final approval motion, Bishop Willmott moved his adjournment motion.

Bishop Willmott said that the amendment to Clause 5 had "caused widespread dismay among many of those who have supported the Measure up till now. . . Many who have previously voted for the Measure have now said that they could no longer vote for it in its present form."

He acknowledged that the Bishops would need to "weigh very carefully" the impact that removing or amending the new clause would have on those "for whom it was a welcome acknowledgment of their own position", and suggested that a revised illustrative Code of Practice should be published alongside revised draft legislation.

In a ten-minute contribution to the debate on the adjournment motion, the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to explain "what was in the minds of the House of Bishops" when it voted for the "controversial" amendment to Clause 5. This action came, he said from the "very deep desire" of the "overwhelming majority" that the Measure should be carried "confidently".

Dr Williams said that the Bishops had diagnosed "unfinished business". They were not convinced that it would be carried. This was not because they had been "got at", but because of their reading of their own diocesan situations and the views of their diocesan representatives at Synod. There was a danger that the Measure could be seen as accommodating "sheer prejudice" or "unthinking conservatism", which would be "offensive to women at least as profoundly as what has been suggested as an amendment".

Bishops had "underrated" the sense of hurt and offence caused by the amendments, and would need to "feel appropriate penitence that they did not recognise that".

Dr Williams warned, however, that an adjournment was "not a panacea". He did not feel, himself, "convinced that we were wrong in the wording we selected"; but that was "a conviction that needs to be tested and discussed".

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, gave Synod a warning. He said that there was "no way that I am going to be able to explain to the [House of] Commons that when this Church had voted by 42 dioceses to two, it was not possible for the Synod to manage to develop a Measure which commands the support of the whole Synod; and in particular commands the support of those who campaign for such a Measure."

He also warned that the outcome might influence arguments about bishops in the House of Lords. And on Tuesday, Chris Bryant MP tabled a series of amendments to the House of Lords Reform Bill, which sought to remove the Bishops from a reformed Second Chamber because of their actions over women bishops. Writing in The Independent last Friday, Mr Bryant complained of the "episcopal jiggery-pokery" over the draft Measure, which was causing "apartheid in the Church". Immediately after the adjournment motion was carried, WATCH issued a statement expressing relief. The group's chair, the Revd Rachel Weir, said that she hoped there would be "a thorough consultation process over the summer, so that whatever is presented to General Synod in November keeps faith with the dioceses that voted overwhelmingly for the unamended Measure".

Traditionalists expressed disappointment at the adjournment. The Catholic Group in General Synod said that it called "into question the commitment of the Church of England to provide for the religious convictions of all her loyal members".

Forward in Faith called upon the House of Bishops "to stand firm in the face of unwarranted pressure, and to return the draft Measure to the Synod in a form which will provide for the future of traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals".

Prebendary Rod Thomas, the chairman of Reform, the conservative Evangelical group, said: "We stand ready to co-operate to find a solution if there is a genuine desire to see a permanent place . . . for those who on theological grounds cannot accept women as bishops."

The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, said that the Church needed "time for further reflection and round-table discussion to find another form of words for Clause 5(1)(c)", but without "intensifying any sense of discrimination".

A joint statement from the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, and the Bishop of Brixworth, the Rt Revd John Holbrook, expressed disappointment. "We understand the concerns of those who in conscience cannot accept the sacramental and episcopal ministry of women for theological reasons, but believe that the proposed Measure does provide sufficient safeguard of their interests."

A poll of 2117 adults, carried out by ComRes between 4 and 5 July, found that 74 per cent of respondents believe that women should be allowed to become bishops; 12 per cent think that they should not; and 15 per cent do not know.

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