THE General Synod is in trouble. In ten days' time, it is to
consider giving final approval to the consecration of women
bishops. In the normal run of things, this would be the stage for a
general debate in which the participants return to first
principles, examine whether the legislation does or does not fulfil
their wishes, and vote accordingly. This debate looks increasingly
unlikely to happen.
What has changed things are the amendments appended to the
Measure by the House of Bishops (News, 25 May). These were a) that
the episcopal ministry of a male bishop acting under a diocesan
scheme was derived from his own orders but delegated from the
diocesan bishop; and b) that the Code of Practice should give
guidance that a diocesan bishop should, when appointing a bishop
or priest to oversee a dissenting parish, select someone "the
exercise of ministry of whom is consistent with the theological
convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women" of the
These amendments were designed to achieve two things. The first
was to reassure traditionalists that proper provision will be made
for them in the Measure and the Code of Practice. The second was to
give the Measure a better chance of passing.
The effect of the amendments has been the opposite of what was
intended, however. The failure of opponents to endorse them,
understandable though this may be, and the fierce rejection of them
by many of the proponents, to the extent that some have been
calling for the Measure to be voted down, mean that the Measure
might fall in both the Houses of Laity and Clergy. This would be a
farcical end to the long, tortuous synodical process, and hard to
square with the overwhelming vote in the diocesan synods.
We are prompted to write at this length because of our
observation that the different sides in the debate have ceased to
speak to each other, even at the minimal level seen in the past.
The mechanisms of rational debate have thus been lost. On the eve
of such an important vote, this is profoundly disturbing.
IT WOULD, of course, have been better had the Bishops'
amendments been tabled much earlier in the synodical process. This,
though, is to forget that the minds of the Synod, including its
Bishops, were wrestling with other, more far-reaching attempts to
secure the place of traditionalists in the C of E. It is hard to
agree, however, with those who have presented the Bishops'
amendments as a novelty. What the House of Bishops has done is to
make explicit in the Measure what was already implicit in the
illustrative draft Code of Practice, in that it states that
requests from a parish for alternative oversight must state that
they are made on grounds of theological conviction.
The report of the working group on the illustrative draft Code
of Practice said in January this year: "None of us would wish to
argue that, when faced with a Letter of Request [for alternative
oversight], a diocesan bishop should pay no heed to the particular
needs and convictions of the parish concerned. That would be
inconsistent with the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop as
chief minister and pastor of the diocese."
The problem with the Code, however, is that it cannot be drafted
until after the Measure has been passed; and it can be amended
later by a simple majority in the General Synod. Although one might
hope that such an assurance would placate the traditionalists, it
is understandable that 20 years of wrangling over the provisions of
the Act of Synod cannot be forgotten instantly.
The working group goes on: "Where, however, we have been unable
to come to a common mind is on what, if anything, the Code should
say" (on this matter). The Bishops' amendment provides both a
wording and, as it is part of the Measure, a degree of assurance.
Those who object do so on two grounds. One is that it enshrines in
the legislation something that has been, so far, an internal
matter. (The Act of Synod that introduced Resolutions A, B, and C
was never statutory.) Since the Code of Practice will be a
statutory part of the Measure, the distinction is not as great as
it may seem. Second, they object to the wording, which, by stating
merely that the priest or bishop must exercise a ministry
"consistent with the theological convictions of . . . the PCC"
risks legitimising a range of reasons to reject women's ministry,
including, say its opponents, the issue of "taint".
THE argument about "taint", not a word that is generally used
by traditionalists, bears examination, since it lies at the heart
of what constitutes acceptable provision. There must be no doubt
about the sacraments, and, to those whose convictions accord with
mainstream Catholicism, the ordination of women by one branch of
the Church introduces an element of doubt. This means that the
orders of a male priest ordained by a female bishop are also
doubtful. Similarly, when, in future, a male bishop is ordained by
a group of bishops that includes a woman, since they act as one in
the consecration, there will be doubt, too, about his episcopal
In keeping with these views, the ministry of a "securely"
consecrated bishop who, none the less, ordains women is,
technically acceptable. Here the objection is more political:
traditionalists naturally feel a greater affinity with someone who
sees the issue from their point of view. In accordance with this,
however, the Clause 5 amendment does not state that a bishop needs
to agree with the theological convictions of a parish.
This desire for sacramental assurance is, thus, theological, not
to be confused with a belief in some sort of female hex. The
problem is that it is compatible with the Anglican formularies but
not universally shared. Such beliefs were the bedrock of the Oxford
Movement, however, and cannot be set aside lightly. Those who hold
this view, feeling beleaguered, have not distanced themselves
sufficiently from those who do, indeed, hold disturbing views of
women. Thus tales such as that of a priest who reconsecrated an
altar after a woman had celebrated at it circulate unchecked, and
cast a shadow of suspicion over traditionalists which is not
ATTENTION has focused on the Catholic objections to women in the
episcopate, but another criticism of the Clause 5 amendment is that
it also permits Evangelical parishes to request a priest or bishop
whose ministry is consistent with their views of women. Because
numbers are small, and because conservative Evangelicals tend not
to expect to win liberals over by argument, there has been little
debate about these conservative beliefs. Catholics, liberals, and
increasing numbers of Evangelicals find the matter of headship an
inexplicable confusion of cultural and biblical understanding, and
at odds with the evidence of 20 years of women's ordained
No attempt has been made, however, to argue either these
Evangelicals or the traditionalists out of their opinions, not
least because both views are supported by greater numbers in the
universal Church. Misogyny might well be part of the mix of
objections to women bishops - it remains rife, after all, in the
institutional Church - but the Synod's approach throughout has been
to accommodate such differing views, provided that such
accommodation did not detract in any way from the authority or
ministry of a future woman bishop. It might be argued that, by
stipulating that it was more than the mere maleness of a priest or
bishop that made him acceptable to the dissenting parishes, the
Bishops managed to clarify things.
IT IS important to reaffirm the general principle that making
provision for those opposed to the ministry of women bishops in no
way diminishes or detracts from the authority of any future woman
selected for the episcopate. If there were any hint that, in
future, women and men cannot serve on the Bishops' bench as equals,
the Synod should have embarked on a different course. And yet a
consistent theme throughout this process has been the complaint by
opponents that the provision offered is not adequate. Few seem to
have heard the voices saying, for the first time, that, with the
Bishops' amendments, these may be arrangements they can live with.
If one believes, as we do, that the concessions made do nothing
more than make explicit what was already implicit in the
legislation, then this was a significant step forward in keeping
the Church of England intact.
It is for this reason that we would prefer the Measure, as
amended, to be given final approval by the Synod. We believe that
it expresses the right spirit of compromise and generosity required
of a Church that is taking such a positive and momentous step
forward when large sections of the universal Church remain
Given the pronouncements of the past few days, however, and
particularly the letter from senior women priests this week, we
must conclude that an attempt to round off the debate in such an
atmosphere is unwise, especially given the danger that the present
confusion has added to the uncertainty of a sufficient majority of
votes. The alternative, then, appears to be a referral back to the
House of Bishops, with a request to convene another session of the
Synod in November. We cannot recall an occasion when the Synod,
presented with an opportunity to fudge an issue, or to wriggle down
an escape shute, has not accepted it gratefully.
It is not enough, however, to fling the matter back at the
Bishops like a piece of badly done homework with an instruction to
do better next time and return the Measure to the Synod unamended.
This is a misreading of the mood of the Bishops and the motivation
that led them to amend the Measure in the first place. The Bishops
cannot abandon their duty of care to all parishioners within their
jurisdiction, since such a withdrawal of care would add to the
divisions that they have been working to avoid. Furthermore, the
very act of rejecting the amended Measure would send out a clear
message to traditionalists that the provision it now contains is
deemed to be too generous, and it is hard to imagine any form of
words that might counteract this impression.
The most that the Synod can reasonably hope for is a tinkering
with the wording to make the amended Measure more generally
acceptable. If an adjournment is passed, the least the House of
Bishops should expect is an indication from Synod members how they
wish the amendments to look, mindful - and this bears repeating -
that the unamended Measure was seriously at risk of failing to win
the two-thirds majorities needed. There remains the matter of the
Code of Practice. If the Measure is stripped of its reassurances
for the opponents, then debate over the Code is likely to be
fierce - if there has not already been an exodus to other
It is worth, finally, looking once more at numbers. The amount
of synodical time given to those who object to women bishops has
inevitably inflated their significance. There are 363 parishes
that have sought alternative episcopal oversight in the C of E:
three per cent of the total. Another three per cent have passed
Resolution A; a further one per cent Resolution B. Some dioceses
contain only one or two such parishes. Even when combined with a
few conservative Evangelical parishes, they cannot detract from
the overwhelming support for women bishops that we see in the
Church at large. On their own, they cannot secure any sort of
continuing provision. They cannot threaten; they cannot cajole.
They are reliant on whatever provisions the majority wishes to
give them. Dr Williams warned last week against "majoritarian
tyranny". The reason why a one-clause approach has been rejected in
the past is that most believe that women bishops can be introduced
with confidence while still accommodating dissenting views.
The Synod is in danger of attracting widespread puzzlement if it
fails to agree women bishops after such a long process. Put simply,
it must not fail. Anxiety has been expressed about the precedent
set by allowing parishes to choose their own type of priest (as if
this did not happen at present). A far more worrying precedent will
be set if Synod members cannot find a way to live in the same
Church as those with whom they disagree.