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House of Bishops to revive hopes for women bishops

14 December 2012


NEW legislation to enable women to become bishops will be presented to the General Synod in July, the House of Bishops announced on Tuesday, after a two-day meeting at Lambeth Palace.

The Archbishops will set up a working group, drawn from all three Houses of Synod, its membership to be announced before Christmas. This group will arrange "facilitated discussion with a wide range of people with a variety of views" in the week of 4 February, when the General Synod was to have met.

Immediately after these discussions, the House of Bishops will meet and the elements of a new legislative package are expected to be decided at its meeting in May, in readiness for the July sessions.

The Bishops reckon that, "for such proposals to command assent", they will need to offer "greater simplicity", but also a "clear embodiment of the principle articulated by the 1998 Lambeth Conference that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans". There was also a need for a "broadly based measure of agreement about the shape of the legislation in advance of the beginning of the actual legislative process".

On Tuesday night, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said: "Finding a new way forward won't be easy, but we are determined to take a lead, and to do all that we can to offset the further missional damage that delay will inevitably bring."

One of the "many ironies of our current situation" was that "the House of Bishops has never been so united on this issue," he said.

On Wednesday, the Catholic Group in the General Synod welcomed the House of Bishops' "roadmap for peace. . . We stand fully ready to assist in the process of agreeing fresh legislation to provide for the religious convictions of all loyal Anglicans." The Group asked that women "who do not support the consecration of women bishops" contribute to the discussions.

The Bishops' meeting was attended by the Dean of York, the Very Revd Vivienne Faull; the Archdeacon of Lewisham & Greenwich, the Ven. Christine Hardman; Dr Paula Gooder; and Margaret Swinson, all of whom served on the steering committee or revision committee for the legislation that fell in November.

On Wednesday, the Revd Rosemary Lain-Priestley, who chairs the National Association of Diocesan Advisers in Women Ministries, said that it was "essential that everyone involved engages fully with the process between now and the July Synod in a spirit of hope". But she found it "very difficult" to imagine a "different way forward", given her belief that the "best possible compromise was on the table in November".

She was "really pleased" by the proposed meeting with lay and ordained women to discuss how they might contribute to the House of Bishops.

The Bishops' statement also included plans to hold an event early in 2013 to discuss with a "larger number of lay and ordained women . . . questions about the culture of the House [of Bishops'] processes and discussions, and how women might more regularly contribute".

On Wednesday, Dean Faull, said that it was misleading to think of a one-off "event" with women in 2013. "Prayerful thought" was being given to "not just how women might be included, in terms of being present, but how their voices might be heard - and how their presence might change what I think many bishops regard as really quite a fixed, and probably somewhat outmoded, culture in the House".

There was "virtually nowhere else in the country where you have an all-male group", she said. "Life is not like that in the world any more. It feels very strange now to most existing bishops."

After the failure of the earlier Measure, Diana Johnson MP tabled an urgent question in the Commons, arguing: "It is imperative that those in the all-male group of bishops do not talk just to one another, but work with and alongside senior women in the Church to find a way forward."

She said on Tuesday that she felt "really strongly" that Parliament had a part to play in moving the issue of women bishops forward.

"It is much better if the Church of England can sort itself out, but it also right and proper that Parliament makes it views clear and tries to assist the Church," she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, a debate took place in the House of Commons, brought to the floor by Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, who is a patron of the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod.

He said that, given that Parliament must approve legislation by the Church of England, MPs "don't have a choice" but to discuss women bishops. "This is not Parliament wishing to or relishing intervening in church affairs, but priests and lay people in the Church pleading with us to do so."

Letters he had received from clergy included requests for Parliament to "remove the Church's exemption from equality laws", put in place a moratorium on all new appointments of bishops, or amend canon law.

Mr Bradshaw believed that a fresh Measure might be handicapped by containing too many "safeguards", deemed to be "inconsistent with widely accepted views on equality".

He said on Tuesday: "I am all for proper provision being made for the opponents of women bishops, but they seem to want even more safeguards, whereas the majority feel that what has been offered goes far enough. . .

"They may have lost their last chance of getting reasonable safeguards, because the tide of opinion now seems to be 'Let's just have a simple Measure and pastoral voluntary organisation along the same lines as exists in all the rest of the Anglican Communion where they have women bishops.' The opponents have, I fear, overplayed their hand very badly."

On Monday, it was confirmed that a motion of no confidence in the Chair of the House of Laity, Dr Philip Giddings ( News, 7 December), will be proposed on 18 January at Church House.


December: Archbishops announce members of women-bishops working group.

early 2013: House of Bishops to meet with lay and ordained women to discuss how women might contribute to its work.

4 February: Working group to hold discussions with "wide range of people";

House of Bishops to meet to review outcome of discussions.

May: House of Bishops meets again to agree elements of new legislative package.

July: New legislative package presented to General Synod.

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