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Women bishops: All for one (almost)

21 June 2013

Michael Perham explains why most of the House of Bishops favour the first of the four options


Radical: the Rt Revd Michael Perham takes legal advice during a Synod debate

Radical: the Rt Revd Michael Perham takes legal advice during a Synod debate

Option One is the most radical of those now before us, in that it moves furthest away from a legislative answer to how we provide for those unable to accept women in the episcopate.

But a radical solution is what we need; for we have had years of proposals that involve legislation, and all have failed, including, last November, the scheme that was most generous to opponents of women bishops.

This option comes to the General Synod with the endorsement of the House of Bishops. That endorse-ment is not, of course, unanimous, and, in any case, must be provis-ional until the Bishops have heard the messages from the facilitated conversations on the Saturday of the Synod next month.

But a much more united House of Bishops is giving a clear lead, and this is a proposal sufficiently different to change the atmosphere and breathe some fresh air and real hope into a stale situation.

Option One needs to be understood as having four key elements. Without all four, it will fail. These are:

1.  a simple Measure that allows women to be bishops;

2.  the repeal of the 1993 Measure and the rescinding of the 1993 Act of Synod;

3.  a new Act of Synod, or a Declaration by the House of Bishops, establishing the five principles set out in paragraph 12 of GS 1886, together with practical guidelines to provide pastoral and sacramental provision for those opposed; and

4.  a system of independent monitoring.

In the choice between a new Act of Synod and a Declaration by the House of Bishops, debate since the publication of the proposals has seemed to favour the Declaration route. For a large number of supporters of women's ordination, the 1993 Act of Synod has been a symbol of discrimination. It is for many (and perhaps for Parliament) simply too totemic, toxic, and divisive.

The existence of a system of professional, independent monitoring is a vital part of the package. Paragraph 14 of GS 1886 introduces the idea, but perhaps does not say clearly enough how its existence may be the key. In the past, a House of Bishops Declaration has not been thought to provide strong enough provision. What is different now is this safeguard of an independent group to which any who felt their bishop was not working within the Declaration could go for redress.

Such a system of monitoring has proved effective and significant in other areas of conflict resolution - and we need to be honest: conflict resolution is what we need.

People will also want to see as early as possible the text any of such Declaration. It needs to be on the table from the very beginning of the legislative process. We know from experience that failing to have material up-front breeds distrust.

As a Church, we need to tackle this head-on, and not try to bypass the history of mistrust. Option One cannot work unless people demonstrate a new desire to be trustworthy and to be trusting of others. Talks about building trust will be important in the coming months.

It is worth remembering that, whereas the distrust in the Synod is focused on the Bishops, in the Church more widely the distrust is of the Synod itself. Generous trust-building needs now to be on everyone's agenda; for Option One is our only chance.

The Rt Revd Michael Perham is Bishop of Gloucester. 

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