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Women bishops: paper talks of ‘simplicity’ and ‘security’

08 February 2013

Bishop Nigel Stock, who chairs the working group on women in the episcopate

Bishop Nigel Stock, who chairs the working group on women in the episcopate

A SHORTER and simpler form of legislation for women bishops is envisaged by the working group convened to advise the House of Bishops ( News, 21 December). It is suggested that this may not be incompatible with achieving "a greater sense of security" for opponents.

A consultation document, over the signature of the General Synod's Secretary General, William Fittall, issued to all members of the Synod today, sets out "ideas and issues that are beginning to emerge" after "facilitated discussions" on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Its first proposition is that the draft Measure that fell at the November General Synod must be abandoned: "it would not be sensible to try to take the rejected draft Measure as a starting point and tweak it. . . Though so narrowly lost, its moment has passed."

The second proposition is that "any new approach should not seek to reopen questions around jurisdiction and the position of the diocesan bishop, in law, as the ordinary and chief pastor of everyone in the diocese." Any transfer or sharing of jurisdiction risks "introducing confusion where there needs to be clarity" and "any notion of a two-tier episcopate is anathema."

The third proposition is that "there needs, so far as possible, to be a complete package of proposals that can be assessed in its entirety before final approval, without the possibility of further amendments to some parts of it between the final approval of the legislation and its coming into force."

The final proposition, described as "arguably the most important and also the most subtle", is that "From the recent conversations it is clear that any new package needs to try, so far as possible to achieve two things. While at first sight they appear to be in tension with each other, they may in fact offer a possible way forward."

The two objectives are: "Produce a shorter, simpler Measure than the one that was defeated; Provide, through the totality of the elements in the package, a greater sense of security for the minority as having an accepted and valued place in the Church of England while not involving the majority in any new element of compromise on matters of principle."

The document confesses that there remain "significant differences of view" in the working group which "are not easily reconciled" in a "polarised" environment.

The document sets out the arguments for and against the two polarities in the debate: the emphasis on "trust rather than enforceable safeguards", and the desire for "key relevant provisions" for opponents to be written into the Measure itself.

It hints that the the sympathies of the House of Bishops are likely to lie with the former. It states that the second approach would not "sit very easily" with the House of Bishops' statement on 11 December ( News, 14 December) calling for a new legislative package of "greater simplicity".

The document also warns of the Church of England's "general tendency of going in for too much regulation and prescription" and a concern that, the more substantial and complex any Measure is, "the more anguished and hesitant the Church of England risks being over a development that, for most people within the Church of England, should be a cause of affirmation and joy."

It warns that such a Measure may not command the support of those who voted for the November Measure despite considering it to be "at the limits of acceptable compromise and complexity", and speaks of a "real risk that Parliament might baulk at approving a measure that seemed too elaborate and hedged about".

Although the document speaks of the urgency of resolution, the group has concluded that "further consultation is needed over the next few weeks". Members of the General Synod will have until 28 February to respond to the consultation, and their contributions will be reviewed at the next meeting of the working group on 4 March.

Today, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Nigel Stock, who chairs the working group, said that he had been "very impressed by the honesty, openness and commitment" of particants in discussions this week.

The ten members of the working group had been joined by 15 additional participants, including representatives of Forward in Faith, the Catholic Group, the National Association of Diocesan Advisers in Women's Ministry, Reform, Church Society, and WATCH; and six individuals, including the Revd Janet Appleby, who produced the "Appleby amendment" ( News, 14 September) to the Measure that fell in November. These 15 would continue to contribute to conversations, he said.

A desire had emerged this week, he said, for "a change of behaviour on all sides, so that the atmosphere can be created in which people can be constructive rather than defensive".

The discussions had been facilitated by a team headed by the Canon Director for Reconciliation Ministry at Coventry Cathedral, David Porter, and participants had been "hugely encouraged" by both the Archbishop of York's and the Archbishop of Canterbury's presiding at holy communion at the start of each day, and "lending their support and encouragement to what happened later".

The consultation document can be read here.

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