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Leader: Women bishops: what should happen next

29 June 2012

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 PCC.

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 orders.

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 corrected.


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 ministry.

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.

What next?

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 unconvinced.

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 Churches.

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.

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