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
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
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
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
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
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.