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Synod women-bishops vote appears too close to call

09 November 2012


Like this: the Rt Revd Mary Gray-Reeves and (right) Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, from the Episcopal Church in the US

Like this: the Rt Revd Mary Gray-Reeves and (right) Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, from the Episcopal Church in the US

THE possibility that the women-bishops Measure could fall at the final vote in November appeared substantial this week, after members of the General Synod on both sides of the debate voiced their opposition to it. But WATCH now reports that a majority of its members are in favour.

Writing in today's Church Times, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, who is in favour of women bishops, says that he could not support the Measure. He challenges the claim that rejecting it would be "disastrous": "this is a poor argument, if the underlying proposal lacks wisdom."

He cites three concerns: the apparent assumption that admitting women to the episcopate is "inevitable"; the destruction of the "sacramental unity of the episcopate"; and the impact on ecumenical relations. The Church should, he suggests, wait until "80 per cent or more" are in favour of the change, "and then proceed without the qualifications that are currently enshrined in the Measure and its prospective Code".

A proponent of women bishops, the Vicar of St Pancras Parish Church, London, Canon Anne Stevens, also rejects the "apocalyptic warnings" of those urging a yes vote. In a letter, she states that "the effect of what is proposed in the Measure clearly is discriminatory", and refers to the exemptions from the Equality Act (2010) contained within it.

The Church of England should consider "non-legislative alternatives", she suggests, warning that the "uneasy compromise" of the Measure could create further division.

On Monday, the chairmen of the Catholic Group in General Synod, Canon Simon Killwick, and of Reform, Prebendary Rod Thomas, launched a briefing opposing the Measure: Women Bishops Legislation "Not Fit For Purpose". Sent to all members of the Synod at the weekend, it warns that the draft legislation is "fatally flawed". This is because it "relies on specially appointed bishops for traditionalists, but does not guarantee that any will be appointed". The authors argue that, "despite the fact that nearly one in ten members of Synod are Evangelicals who do not subscribe to women bishops, there are no serving bishops of their persuasion in the Church of England at all."

The briefing also argues that the provision for traditionalists is "very uncertain", because it is "unclear what showing 'respect' might involve". The Measure, as amended by the House of Bishops on 12 September - using the "Appleby amendment" ( News, 14 September) - states that the Code of Practice accompanying the Measure should cover selection of bishops which "respects the grounds on which Parochial Church Councils issue Letters of Request".

Another concern voiced in the briefing is that the Code has not yet been debated or agreed by the Synod, and cannot be directly enforced. In addition, the Measure "does not reflect what the Bible teaches about the equality of men and women and how differences between them are to be reflected in their church roles".

The two chairmen pledge that if the Synod declines to approve the draft Measure, they will commit themselves to seeking agreement about a better way forward.

Supporters of the Measure also spoke out this week. On Monday, the campaign group WATCH published the results of its consultation on the draft legislation, stating that "the balance of opinion in our constituency is now firmly in favour of this legislation passing." This represented a change from the "very deep and passionate division" evident in conversations immediately after the publication of the Appleby amendment.

Although supporters of WATCH retained "a number of reservations", and there remained a "strong minority view" that the legislation was discriminatory and should be opposed, a "significant majority" now wanted to see it gain final approval this month. The package was "good enough", said the Revd Rachel Weir, who chairs WATCH.

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Steven Croft, delivered a video message of support for the Archbishop of Canterbury's "Enough Waiting" campaign, speaking of the wishes of the "overwhelming majority of dioceses".

"The society we serve wants us to make a positive decision, to take action and to move on," he said. "However long we keep talking, we will not find a better fit than this."

The Revd Janet Appleby, Team Vicar in the Willington Team and Vicar and Minister in the Church of the Good Shepherd Local Ecumenical Project in Wallsend, Tyne & Wear, and a member of the General Synod, also recorded a message of support.

When she first offered her suggested amendment, she had found it "personally painful", and had "feared this was a compromise too far", she said. She had, however, become convinced that the Measure should now be passed - "ironically", because it "has not satisfied any of the pressure groups at all ends of the spectrum of the Church of England".

This was, perhaps, "inevitable", given the "fault line developed between two irreconcilable views". But the Measure "has given us a way out of our impasse . . . because it requires all of us . . . to commit to trusting one another and respecting each others' theological convictions".

On Sunday, a website was launched to encourage churchgoers to lobby members of General Synod to vote in favour of the Measure. The "Yes 2 Women Bishops" initiative was launched by the Church Mouse, a blogger, assisted by Rebecca Swinson, a member of the Archbishops' Council, and Vicky Beeching, a theologian who is studying social media at Durham University.

The website, which enables visitors to email their representa-tives at General Synod, argues that to reject the Measure would mean "plunging the Church into another five years of argument with no prospect of a better alternative on the horizon".

Comment; Letters

Question of the week: Is further discussion likely to produce anything better? 

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