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The system works

18 January 2013

. . . so don't change it, David Hope says

richard watt

Why change:: Lord Hope, then Archbishop of York, chairing the General Synod in 1996

Why change:: Lord Hope, then Archbishop of York, chairing the General Synod in 1996

During the debate in the General Synod on the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure in 1992, I made the point that the first question that ought to have been asked was whether it was right or possible for a woman to be ordained bishop.

In a Church that professes "that from the Apostles' time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests and Deacons", then the order of bishop is pivotal, and fundamental to the exercise of any ordained ministry within the Church of England.

Therefore, in the very second clause of that original Measure enabling the ordination of women as priests, deliberately to have excluded them from the possibility of being ordained bishop seemed to me a nonsense, thereby undermining the whole thrust of the Measure.

It may be worth remembering that that same Measure provided for those bishops who were opposed virtually to declare their dioceses "no-go" areas for women to be ordained, and, given that they had the freehold, basically to sit it out until retirement.

I took the view at the time that, given that the General Synod had now approved the Measure, it would be hugely unjust and destructive for the Church to follow such a course, and that there must be a better way forward - hence the London Plan, which the staff of the diocese (comprising both proponents and opponents) together agreed.

It is interesting to note in passing that the Measure in 1992, while it gained substantial majorities in both the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, only narrowly secured the two-thirds majority in the House of Laity - by about the same number of votes by which the recent draft legislation was rejected.

That original Measure was eventually approved by both the General Synod and Parliament, in the context of a paper from the House of Bishops, Bonds of Peace, and the Act of Synod. These set out appropriate arrangements for those parishes unable or unwilling to accept the ministry of women as priests, including the provision of provincial episcopal visitors ("flying bishops").

The Act of Synod sought to ensure three things: "that discernment in the wider Church of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England's decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible;" that "the highest possible degree of communion should be maintained in each diocese;" and that "the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected." The Act was passed overwhelmingly by the General Synod "to make provision for the continuing diversity of opinion in the Church of England as to the ordination of women as priests".

Here, it seems to me, is the nub. This diversity has not greatly diminished over time, and still needs to be recognised for what it is: the firmly held views of loyal and committed Anglicans who, for a variety of good and cogent reasons (already well-rehearsed here), lead them not yet to be able to accept the ordination of women either as priests or as bishops.

Frankly, I do not want either protection or safeguards. I simply want to be recognised as a loyal member of the Church of England, a Church in which it has been my privilege to minister for nearly 50 years, and for those arrangements which enable, for the time being at any rate, the continuing diversity of the Church of England, until such time as the matter is finally resolved and "received" throughout the Church.

Little seems to have been made of the concept of "reception" which

was much used at the time of the Measure to allow women as priests. Little, too, seems to have been made of the successive reports of the Eames Commission, of which for a time I was a member.

This was a commission set up by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, to advise the Anglican Communion on women in the episcopate. It set out a number of pastoral arrangements in the event of a woman's being made bishop, arrangements not altogether dissimilar to those enshrined within the Act of Synod.

That same commission stated on "reception": "Sensitively and clearly expressed dissent can be creative in the forming of the mind of the whole Church, as it seeks critically to test and refine the truth; dissent should not be marginalised or excluded. . .

"The fact that a synod has reached a decision does not foreclose the matter. Both sides need to work hard to ensure that the process of reception continues to be as open as possible, recognising that synodical decisions may indeed come to be overwhelmingly affirmed, or on the other hand, equally as overwhelmingly rejected."

Clearly, any arrangements, such as are set out in the Act of Synod, were going to be anomalous, and to some extent irregular - as indeed were the arrangements I made as Bishop of London in the so-called London Plan. It was a bitterly but almost equally divided diocese, but one that I hope, to use a phrase of the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, honoured "the dignity of difference".

The clear purpose of all such arrangements was and ought to be to honour the continuing diversity of the Church of England in this matter - the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Perhaps I am being naïve, but it seems to me that, in view of lessons already learned from 1992, and the subsequent outworking of that Measure for the ordination of women as priests, it cannot be beyond the wit of our Church to bring forward a Measure for the ordination of women as bishops - one that honours and holds both those in favour and those opposed.

We don't need to tear up the rule book, either. Why not bring back legislation that continues to honour the broad principles of the Act of Synod?

This would be a resolution that I believe can be both more realistic and honest, and may, in the long run, make for a more profound and lasting unity.

In third-century Carthage, Bishop Cyprian (himself no stranger to controversy, often with a good deal of acrimony), wrote: "In the event of disagreement, no compulsion should be brought to bear. . . The Church, while still preserving unity, will be obliged to live for a time with the fact of disagreement."

So why not recognise honestly that there is continuing disagreement and dissent on this fundamental issue, and, with the guidance provided by the Eames Commission (especially in Sections III and IV of its first report), amend the Act of Synod and its accompanying Code of Practice to reflect this further proposed development?

Then we could move on together in that fellowship and communion that is the gift of Christ to his Church.

The Rt Revd Lord Hope is a former Archbishop of York. He was Bishop of London 1991-95.


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