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Church in Wales opens Bishops’ bench to women

20 September 2013

Church in Wales

The vote: members of the Governing Body file through the lobby doors at the University of Wales building, Lampeter

The vote: members of the Governing Body file through the lobby doors at the University of Wales building, Lampeter

THE Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales will "not please everybody" with a code of practice containing provisions for those who dissent from women bishops, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has said.

Dr Morgan was speaking after the Governing Body of the Church overwhelmingly approved a Bill to enable the consecration of women to the episcopate. At the same time, it rejected the Bill's original plan for statutory safeguards.

This two-stage approach had been endorsed by the Governing Body last September (News, 21 September 2012), but last week it accepted an amendment tabled by the Archdeacon of Llandaff, the Ven. Peggy Jackson, that replaced those clauses with new ones instructing the Bench of Bishops to agree a code of practice "without delay".

Dr Morgan, speaking at the University of Wales Trinity St David campus in Lampeter, Ceredigion, said that he was "very pleased indeed" with the result. "The Bishops now will have to talk to a spectrum of people across the Church about how they see things." The Governing Body would discuss the matter next April, "and, in the light of that discussion, we will produce the Code of Practice. That's what the Bill says, that's what we've been entrusted to do, and that is what we will do.

"That won't please everybody, and I've no idea what is going to be in it yet, because we haven't even begun to discuss it. But that's the process, and that is what we are going to stick with."

Dr Morgan said that he did not know why the issue of women bishops caused so much more anguish than other contentious issues facing the Church. "Some people feel that it is unbiblical, that it is against the tradition, and that we are at variance with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church.

"Well, we are at variance with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. If that was the only issue that divided us, I would say: 'Well, let's hang on a minute.' But, of course, the Roman Catholic Church doesn't actually recognise our orders.

"We did have a Reformation, and it is possible for us as a Church to look at faith-and-order issues in our own way. And we're not actually fundamentally altering the threefold order. We are just extending that order to women, and it is only right that we should do so. If women are baptised and redeemed by Christ, they ought to be able to represent him at the altar, and in a diocese."

The Welsh Bishops were meeting their counterparts from the C of E this week, but Dr Morgan said that he had no plans to offer them advice about getting the legislation passed in the General Synod.

"I don't want to give advice to anybody, because every Church is different," he said. "It has been a long slow struggle for us here in Wales. We failed the last time. We succeeded today, but I didn't think we were going to succeed."

It was a good, spirited debate, he said. "There were no histrionics; there were no threats. It was conducted, I think, in a very Christian and mature and grown-up way. I'm absolutely delighted, and I think the Church in Wales can be proud of the way that it conducted itself today."

During the debate, Archdeacon Jackson said that she had tabled her amendment to prevent the Church in Wales continuing to debate the issue in years to come. "We are so close. . . Today can be the day when we vote once for all that women can become bishops in the Church in Wales."

But Dr Elliot King (Swansea & Brecon) argued that the amendment "downgrades both the status and security for those who have to dissent". He said that an unsatisfactory code of practice could "force people like myself out of the Church in Wales".

The debate on the amendment lasted longer than the debate on the Bill itself. It was passed by 72 votes in favour to 46 against. There were six abstentions.

In the debate on the amended Bill, the Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, went through some of the theological arguments against women bishops. "I'm not sure if I find these arguments shocking, or laughable, but it is not a tradition that I can defend," he said in relation to quotes from Richard of Middleton, Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, and St Thomas Aquinas.

Arguments about complementarity and the representation of the persona Christi  were "essentially modern, and only came to the fore when the older arguments had lost their force", he said. "All this is beginning to look to me like a prejudice looking for a theology rather than a theology governing tradition."

Canon Tudor Hughes (St Asaph) argued that the amended Bill took away the opportunity for "members of the Governing Body to explore together effectively the provision that traditionalists need to secure a lasting place in the Church in Wales.

"We were given an assistant provincial bishop: that was removed. We were given a Bill with a second Bill: that was removed. How can we be assured that the code of practice won't be removed? We have been assured that we have an honoured place. It doesn't feel like that."

When it came to the vote, the laity voted 57 in favour, 14 against, with two abstentions. In the House of Clergy, the vote was 27 in favour, ten against. The House of Bishops declined their constitutional right to consult privately before voting, and supported the Bill unanimously.

Cheers and applause greeted the result as it was announced.

After the vote, Dr Morgan promulged the Bill as a Canon of the Church in Wales, and "henceforth binding on all members thereof". It will take effect on 12 September 2014.

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Anthony Priddis, whose diocese includes parishes across the Welsh border, was one of the first to react to the decision.

Bishop Priddis, who claims to have the highest proportion of women priests among the English dioceses, said: "I hope we in England will be following as soon as possible. We don't want glass ceilings anywhere, and certainly not in the Church.

"We know how effective women priests can be, and know it is over time in giving them the responsibility of being bishops."

Campaigning groups on both sides reacted to the news. The chair of Women and the Church (WATCH), the Revd Rachel Weir, described the decision as "fantastic": "The vote will provide a welcome boost to the morale of female clergy well beyond the Welsh borders, and help to set a positive context for our own on-going legislative process in the Church of England."

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, who is chairman of the traditionalist group Forward in Faith, said: "We cannot see how a female bishop could be what a diocesan bishop should be - a Father in God and a focus of unity for all within his diocese.

"This vote therefore makes the question of the provision of episcopal ministry for those who continue to uphold Catholic faith and order in the Church in Wales even more pressing."

He said that he hoped that responses from Catholic groups in Wales to the Welsh Bishops' consultation on the Code of Practice would be met with "the generosity of spirit that ought to be the hallmark of Christian episcopacy".

Wales becomes the 20th province of the Anglican Communion to admit women to the episcopate. These include Scotland and Ireland. Around the globe there have been 33 female bishops in the Anglican Communion. At present, 24 are in post, or are bishops-elect.

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