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Document outlines ‘progress’ on women bishops

15 February 2013


Facilitator: Canon David Porter

Facilitator: Canon David Porter

A SHORTER and simpler form of legislation to enable women to be consecrated as bishops is envisaged by the working group that has been convened to advise the House of Bishops ( News, 21/28 December). It is suggested that this might be compatible with achieving "a greater sense of security" for opponents.

A consultation document, under the signature of the Secretary General of the General Synod, William Fittall, was issued to all members of the Synod last Friday. It sets out "ideas and issues that are beginning to emerge" after "facilitated discussions" on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week.

The ten members of the working group who took part in the discussions were joined by 15 additional participants, including representatives of Forward in Faith, the Catholic Group, the National Association of Diocesan Advisers in Women's Ministry (NADAWM), Reform, the Church Society, and WATCH; and six individuals, including the Revd Janet Appleby, who produced the "Appleby amendment" ( News, 14 September) to the draft Measure that fell in November. These 15 are to continue to contribute to the group's work.

On Tuesday, Mrs Appleby said that she felt "more positive than I did ten days ago that we might achieve real progress". She cautioned, however, that "we must not underestimate the real difficulties in trying to legislate for mutually incompatible views to be held together on a 'first-order' issue, which seems to strike more deeply at the heart of our faith than other tensions we manage to hold successfully within the Church of England."

She suggested that "trying to be too precise and clear in all our wording can create more problems than it solves," and called for a new framework that "both depends on and increases trust, and allows for grace and flexibility in detailed implementation".

The Revd Rosemary Lain-Priestley, who chairs NADAWM, said that the participants had "disagreed rigorously in an atmosphere of attentive respect. . . It did feel like progress. Whatever comes to Synod in July will be provisional and incomplete, but it may be a significant step forward."

The chairman of Reform, Prebendary Rod Thomas, another participant, said that the discussions had "demonstrated that it is possible to think about legislation for women bishops with an entirely different approach".

Martin Dales of the Catholic Group said on Monday that the Group was "cautiously optimistic", and that it was "committed to do everything we can to ensure the safe and speedy passage of fresh legislation through the Synod".

The consultation document sets our four propositions. The first is that the draft Measure that fell at the November General Synod must be abandoned: "it would not be sensible to try to take the rejected draft Measure as a starting point and tweak it. . . Though so narrowly lost, its moment has passed."

The second proposition is that "any new approach should not seek to reopen questions around jurisdiction and the position of the diocesan bishop, in law, as the ordinary and chief pastor of everyone in the diocese." Any transfer or sharing of jurisdiction risks "introducing confusion where there needs to be clarity", and "any notion of a two-tier episcopate is anathema".

The third proposition is that "there needs, so far as possible, to be a complete package of proposals that can be assessed in its entirety before final approval, without the possibility of further amendments to some parts of it between the final approval of the legislation and its coming into force."

The fourth proposition, described as "arguably the most important and also the most subtle", is that "From the recent conversations it is clear that any new package needs to try, so far as possible, to achieve two things. While at first sight they appear to be in tension with each other, they may in fact offer a possible way forward."

The two objectives that the proposition identifies are: "Produce a shorter, simpler Measure than the one that was defeated; Provide, through the totality of the elements in the package, a greater sense of security for the minority as having an accepted and valued place in the Church of England while not involving the majority in any new element of compromise on matters of principle."

The document acknowledges that there remain "significant differences of view" in the working group, which are not easily reconciled in a "polarised" environment. It sets out the arguments for and against the two polarities: the emphasis on "trust rather than enforceable safeguards"; and the desire for "key relevant provisions" for opponents to be written into the Measure itself.

It hints that the sympathies of the House of Bishops are likely to lie with the former. It states that the second approach would not "sit very easily" with the House of Bishops' statement on 11 December ( News, 14 December), which called for a new legislative package of "greater simplicity".

The document also warns of the Church of England's "general tendency of going in for too much regulation and prescription", and a concern that, the more substantial and complex any Measure is, "the more anguished and hesitant the Church of England risks being over a development that, for most people within the Church of England, should be a cause of affirmation and joy."

It warns that such a Measure may not command the support of those who voted for the November Measure despite their considering it to be "at the limits of acceptable compromise and complexity". It also refers to a "real risk that Parliament might baulk at approving a Measure that seemed too elaborate and hedged about".

Although the document speaks of urgency, the group has concluded that "further consultation is needed over the next few weeks." Members of the General Synod will have until 28 February to respond to the consultation, and their contribu-tions will be reviewed at the next meeting of the working group on 4 March.

Last Friday, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock, who chairs the group, said that he had been "very impressed by the honesty, openness and commitment" of participants. A desire had emerged, he said, for "a change of behaviour on all sides, so that the atmosphere can be created in which people can be constructive rather than defensive".

The discussions had been facilitated by a team headed by the Canon Director for Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral, David Porter, and participants had been "hugely encouraged" by both the Archbishop of York's and the Archbishop of Canterbury's presiding at holy communion at the start of each day, and "lending their support and encouragement to what happened later".
Women to join House of Bishops.  Eight senior women clergy will participate in all meetings of the House of Bishops and its standing committee until there are six female members of the House, it was announced on Thursday of last week.

After a special meeting at Lambeth Palace that day to review progress on enabling women to become bishops "at the earliest possible date", the House announced that eight women would be elected regionally from within bishops' senior-staff teams (including deans and archdeacons) as "participant observers", permitted to attend and speak at meetings.

It also agreed to a special meeting on 19 September, when the College of Bishops and a group of senior female clergy will meet to "take forward the range of cultural and practical issues about gender and ministry in the Church of England" arising from the "Transformations" initiative launched at Lambeth in 2011 ( News, 23 September 2011).

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