MPs ‘take up the fight’ over women bishops

14 December 2012

Outspoken: Ben Bradshaw said that MPs had "no choice" but to talk about women bishops

Outspoken: Ben Bradshaw said that MPs had "no choice" but to talk about women bishops

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 said.

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".

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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 relegation".

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 "authentic pain".

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.

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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".

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