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Women bishops: Not the way to trust

21 June 2013

The first Measure foundered because it did not protect traditionalists. So why do the new proposals contain less protection, asks Colin Podmore


Al fresco: a small group at a previous York Synod meeting. It might not be this idyllic next month

Al fresco: a small group at a previous York Synod meeting. It might not be this idyllic next month

THE draft women-bishops Measure foundered because it would have repealed the 1993 Measure. Resolution B would have been replaced by a "Letter of Request", which bishops and patrons could ignore if they had "cogent reasons". Disputes would have been resolved by judicial review in the High Court. Resolution A would have had no replacement.

In the previous House of Laity, this Measure never received the two-thirds majority it needed. Those in charge gambled that the 2010 Synod elections would deliver one. They did not, and the six-year process ended in a train crash.

The Synod was unable to open the episcopate to women (which few, if any, were resisting), because it failed to achieve any degree of consensus about the legislation's contents. This reflected badly on all concerned.

Pastoral wisdom suggests that the immediate aftermath of a trauma, when emotions are still raw, is not the time to map the future. Anger needs to subside. Facilitated conversations, the appointment of a director of reconciliation, and plans for group discussions at the first Synod meeting since November all raised hopes of a new movement towards the mutual understanding and love that underpinned the 1992-93 settlement and are surely necessary if a Christian solution is to be found now.

We looked to the Bishops, charged with pastoral and spiritual leadership, and concern for the Church's unity and for the marginalised, to take the lead in this, as they did in 1993. That they have pre-empted next month's discussions by recommending the removal of any legal provision is deeply disappointing. The mutual trust that we need cannot be created by removing existing legal rights.


The suggestion that the Measure must repeal those rights in order to win parliamentary approval is questionable. Will Parliamentarians really court the headline "'Parliament rejects women bishops" over details of the legislation? And should we look to Parliamentarians or to the Holy Spirit for guidance on how we live with difference in the Body of Christ?

Option One would transfer power from the laity (who can currently pass the legally binding Resolutions A and B) to bishops, patrons, and incumbents, or priests-in-charge, who would be free to take "discretionary decisions" about pa-rochial appointments and ministry, "taking such account as they wished of any statements, declarations or guidance that the House of Bishops might have made nationally".

Lay representatives can veto the appointment of incumbents, but would be "personally exposed to having to defend (at their own cost) their decision". They have no veto when a priest-in-charge is appointed. Nor, without Resolution A, could the laity prevent a female curate from being appointed, or a female priest from presiding.

It is clear that two-thirds of the present House of Laity will not consent to such a shift of power. The Measure, like its predecessor, would represent a gamble on the outcome of elections. A majority of the electorate want women bishops, but do they want them at any cost, and will this be their overriding concern two years hence? No one knows. A second failure would be grim. Is a second gamble the responsible course to recommend?

Some have suggested that, if the Synod declines to follow the Bishops' advice, Her Majesty should be asked to dissolve the Convocations. But will Mr Cameron really advise her to intervene in church politics in this way?

Such threats are not the proper currency of a Christian synod.

Option One would take us back into the blind alley that led to November's fiasco. We should instead pray that God will bestow a new heart and a new spirit. We need mutual generosity, not the vanquishing of one part of Christ's body by another.

Dr Colin Podmore is the Director of Forward in Faith.

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