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Next step proposed on women bishops

31 May 2013


THE House of Bishops will bring a motion to the General Synod on Monday 8 July, at its sessions in York, requesting the drafting of new legislation to enable women to be consecrated to the episcopate. If it is passed, this will allow time for further debate in November, and the process could be concluded in 2015.

The Bishops envisage the legislation as "a measure and amending canon that made it lawful for women to become bishops", and "the repeal of the statutory rights to pass Resolutions A and B under the 1993 Measure" ("option one").

The House came to its decision in York on Monday of last week, after discussing a report by a working group appointed last year, chaired by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock ( News, 14 December). The working group was appointed after the previous legislation fell ( News, 23 November).

In its own report, the House "endorses the working group's view that the Church of England is at a moment where the way forward is likely to be one which makes it difficult for anyone to claim outright victory. The five elements of the vision need to be held together rather than used selectively. . . :

"Once legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England will be fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and will hold that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;

"Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must then be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;

"Since it will continue to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England will acknowledge that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;

"Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests will continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England will remain committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and

"Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England."

Option one was one of four considered in the working group's report. The Bishops rejected option four, which would have placed conscience arrangements for traditionalists in the Measure.

They gave "only limited support" to option three, which would have provided "a House of Bishops' declaration or Act of Synod in relation to episcopal ministry", and retained elements of the 1993 Measure in relation to priestly ministry.

Option two linked the coming into force of the Measure with that of the new Act of Synod, using a "commencement provision", and also included a special-majority requirement for amendment or repeal of the Act.

"In the view of most members of the House", option one would have "the advantage of clarity and offer the best way forward". Most of the Bishops see "a possible disadvantage" in option two, since it "qualifies the legislative simplicity" of option one.

In option one, the working group identified either a declaration from the House of Bishops, or a new Act of Synod, as ways in which the Church could commit itself to maintaining diversity and making arrangements for traditionalists.

The Bishops' report says: "The House of Bishops stands ready to prepare a formal declaration and bring it to the Synod in draft form, once the new legislation has started its passage through the Synod. It would be for the Synod to decide whether it preferred to proceed by way of Act of Synod. As explained by the working group, there would be no difference of legal effect between the two approaches. And the content of the document could be the same in each case."

The House "attaches importance to including . . . a mediation process for addressing grievances from parishes which believed that they had not been treated consistently with the principles and arrangements agreed nationally". All bishops, it says, would be expected to commit themselves to this, a process that would be "a necessary part of creating and sustaining the trust that would be required".

The Bishops place strong emphasis on the need for trust in this scenario, or any other. "The central judgement therefore in relation to any particular combination of instruments is what will most help to create the necessary climate of trust within which mutual flourishing can take place. Is it best to have as little law as possible to prevent people relying on law rather than grace? Or is some law needed to fertilise the soil within which trust may grow?"

The working group in its report had said that "any new process needs to start from a different place from where the Synod was in November", and that the guiding principles needed to be "simplicity; reciprocity; and mutuality".

It urged that, under option one, "both the majority and the minority will do all within their power to avoid giving offence to each other. The majority will need to be sensitive to the feeling of vulnerability that the minority has and their concern that, over time, their position within the Church of England will gradually be eroded (for example, through denying them access to senior leadership roles).

"Equally the minority will acknowledge that for many in the Church of England any difference of treatment between men and women is profoundly problematic, not because they are primarily guided by secular understandings of equality but because of their theological convictions about the nature of the Church and of baptism.

"The outworking of reciprocity will also mean that those who cannot receive the priestly or episcopal ministry of women should not be the only ones for whom special arrangements should, in some circumstances, be made. It is clear that, for some women, the experience of being in a diocese where the diocesan bishop does not ordain women to the priesthood, or indeed where no bishop ordains women, has been hard to bear. . .

"In dioceses where the diocesan bishop does not ordain women it will be particularly important that a bishop who is fully committed to the ordained ministry of women is given a role across the whole diocese for providing support for female clergy."

Speaking on Friday, Bishop Stock said: "We have a choice of proceeding by grace or by law. As you go down the options, more law goes into it. It seems wise to start with maximum grace and see where that gets us; that's where the House of Bishops would like to start."

He said that small-group facilitated discussions among Synod members would take place on the Saturday of the Synod sessions, and warned of the danger of returning to "a zero-sum game". "We're hoping people will not start to take positions and sides too soon. . . This is a real attempt to see how we can begin to honour each other rather than be suspicious of each other.

"People now really do want to look at a more positive way of being together rather than being in separate silos where you have no real contact with each other. There are various signals about that, and a new way of working."

It would be "entirely open to anybody to produce an amendment" in the Synod debate, but "the Bishops thought this is where we ought to start."

The reports by the House of Bishops and the working group can be read here.

Leader comment

Question of the Week: Is the Bishops' plan likely to gain the confidence they seek?

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