THE theological credentials of the House of Commons were put to
the test on Wednesday evening when MPs readily turned to scripture
to debate the ordination of women bishops.
At 5.20 p.m. the Chamber was, if not packed, reasonably well
attended as Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, who is a patron
of the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (
News, 7 December), took to the floor.
"To those who say we should not be talking about this, I say not
only that we should be but that we do not have a choice," he
He had barely made any progress before George Howarth, the
Labour MP for Knowsley, interrupted to propose disestablishment,
but there was little appetite for this on the benches, occupied on
this occasion by, among others, an ordained Anglican, a church
treasurer, a Roman Catholic (who felt it would be inappropriate for
him to vote on Church of England matters), an Evangelical in favour
of women bishops ("many of us support the ordination of women") , a
church organist, and a jockey who had lapsed but returned to the
pews, partly, it seems, to make gags about bookies.
The question, in the end, was not whether Parliament should
deliver the "prod" to General Synod recommended by the Second
Church Estates Commissioner, but just how sharp it should be.
Mr Bradshaw was doubtful about the wisdom of leaving the Church
to resolve the matter. There was "no guarantee" that a fresh
Measure would go through in 2015.
The recipient of pleas from clerics urging Parliament to act, he
gave the opponents of women bishops, short shrift. If some decided
to leave for Rome "or to set up their own conservative Evangelical
sect", then "so be it". The threatened exodus would be more than
countered by the "many more who stay or come back".
Few of the 35 speakers in the three-hour debate came to the
defence of these opponents. Historical parallels were drawn with
the campaign for the female vote, the Race Relations Act, the
abolition of slavery, apartheid, and the late Labour leader John
Smith's plea to "let us serve".
Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull, had seen a
briefing from Forward in Faith comparing women bishops to including
women in Premier League football teams. She was "not really sure
that that is the strongest argument for a team that is fighting
Some Conservative MPs referred to the consciences of the
minority, but it fell to Geoffrey Cox, the Conservative QC MP for
Torridge and West Devon, to deliver a substantial defence of those
who "do not seem to have had much of a voice in the debate today".
Those of a different view to Mr Bradshaw numbered "hundreds of
thousands", he suggested, and their letters to him resonated with
There was something of the martyr about his speech ("I realised
when I stood that what I said would not be popular, and would
attract mirth, perhaps mockery") but it was an eloquent, learned
one. The Measure had failed, he argued, because the Code of
Practice had not been seen, an existing protection had been
removed, and a PCC's view on the dominion of a female bishops could
have been vetoed.
Parliament must show "patience" towards the Church, not "bully
or exercise pressure on it".
It was apparently Mr Cox's reference to "those of us who read
the Bible and listen to what ancient texts say" that provoked the
consequent quoting of scripture. Helen Goodman, the Labour MP for
Bishop Auckland (who thought it would be "appropriate" to wear
purple to the debate) turned to Genesis, Corinthians, and the
Magnificat in her speech - which also owed a debt to the theologian
Hooker. She concluded that she could not accept opponents'
"self-description as a vulnerable and oppressed minority. . . They
do not face being burnt at the stake."
She was not alone in delivering a combative speech. Campaigners
must "take up the fight with added vigour and less willingness to
compromise with those who will never accept change and who never
compromise themselves", Mrs Johnson said.
Yet even among those who wanted to see the matter resolved,
there were anxieties about interfering in church matters.
"Many Members are not Christians, never mind members of the
Church of England. Is it really right that they should take part in
decisions on what a Christian Church should do?" worried Paul
Murphy, the Labour MP for Torfaen.
The "Something Must Be Done" campaign were in high spirits, but
precisely what that Something might be remained undecided. Options
mooted ranged from dissestabishment, to giving the Church a
"nudge", with several options in between, including legislating
without the Church's approval.
Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, had already put
forward a Bill enabling Parliament to act, and another enabling the
Archbishops of Canterbury to fill places in the House of Lords with
senior women deans. He took the oportunity to suggest that the
appointment of the Archbishop-designate ("the guy who had hardly
got his clothes on as bishop") pointed towards a "pretty poorly
based gene pool", in need of enrichening with "the other half of
the human race".
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Helen
Grant, while reiterating the Government's preference for the Church
to sort itself out, confirmed that the doctrine of parliamentary
sovereignty meant that Parliament could amend canon law without the
involvement of General Synod.
The last word was given to Sir Tony Baldry, a popular figure
(even Mr Cox described him as "genial and bluff"), who was able to
update the House on the latest from the House of Bishops. He was
"quite sure" that the Church would listen to the debate and
"address the issue with urgency".