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Politicians threaten to remove exemption

by
30 November 2012

by staff reporters

PA

Critical: Sir Tony Baldry MP speaking in the Commons last week. Reference has been made to his tie, from the male-only Garrick Club

Critical: Sir Tony Baldry MP speaking in the Commons last week. Reference has been made to his tie, from the male-only Garrick Club

POLITICIANS have been putting pressure on the Church to resolve the issue of women bishops quickly.

The Labour MP Frank Field, who is a former member of the General Synod, tabled a Presentation Bill in Parliament last Friday, which sought to remove the Church of England's exemption from equalities legislation. A statement from Mr Field's office said: "If passed, the Bill would make it illegal for the Church of England to discriminate against women when appointing bishops, as they currently do."

Mr Field said: "Parliament has a role in agreeing to or rejecting the Synod's decisions, and I believe that MPs should now use this role, in a helpful way, to ensure those firm wishes are complied with."

Speaking on BBC1's The Big Questions on Sunday, the former Labour Cabinet Minister Ben Bradshaw said that members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords had been united in their "dismay" and "incomprehension" at the outcome of the Synod vote.

"I don't think Parliament wants to act, but because of the very special relationship we have with the Established Church . . . it can't be allowed to rumble on for another five or ten years; it has to be resolved within the next few months. If it's not, then I think Parliament will do something."

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said last week that he shared the disappointment of many at the vote on female bishops. The issue was a matter for the Church to decide, however, and the Government would not try to force the issue through using equalities legislation. Mr Cameron told MPs none the less: "I'm very clear the time is right for women bishops - it was right many years ago.

"They need to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme. But you do have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work, while giving them a sharp prod."

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, said that allowing women to become bishops was "the right thing to do", but said: "in the end it has to be a decision for the Church of England." He continued: "Part of the work of all institutions is to be part of the modern world. People will believe that having women bishops is part of that."

Senior bishops were called to a meeting with peers and the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry MP, on Wednesday of last week, to discuss the implications of the vote.

Sir Tony, who acts as the Church's link with the Commons, said that he felt "extremely saddened" by the vote, which he would find almost impossible to explain to Parliament.

The meeting was attended by more than 40 MPs and peers, and there was an "overwhelming sense of frustration and of disappointment", Sir Tony reported. "There was a real sense, too, that this must not be allowed to rest here.

"There is a feeling that Synod is now not a parliament but a gathering of the tribes. The Church of England does not belong to Forward in Faith and WATCH: it belongs to parishes."

Although there was no sense of holding bishops to account for the Measure's failure, he said that the General Synod, and the Church as a whole, needed to get to grips with how it was perceived in the wider world of Parliament and British society.

"The real risk the Church faces is of disinterest: that people will now switch off and just see it as a sect. The Church will now be taken far less seriously on issues like same-sex marriage, for example".

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday of last week, Sir Tony said that the issue of women bishops could not "in any way be parked for the next couple of years or so, while we await another round of Synod elections. It must be understood that this issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

"I hope that it will be convenient for the House if I seek to arrange a meeting in the near future."

In an interview with The Guardian last Saturday, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, described the Synod vote as "very disappointing. . . Obviously, it's for the Church of England to run its own procedures and processes, but I really hope that they've heard, loud and clear, the strength of feeling on this, and that it acts quickly."

The Labour peer Lord Adonis tweeted after the women-bishops debate: "My instinct is that the Bishops should call a 'back-us-or-sack-us' Synod next year, and make this a collective test of their leadership."

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