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Officials look for ways to fast-track women into Lords

11 April 2014

CHURCH officials and advisers are considering ways to speed up the entry of women bishops into the House of Lords, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, confirmed on Monday.

Episcopal admission to the House of Lords is determined by the Bishopric of Manchester Act of 1847. This limits the number of places for Lords Spiritual to 26. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of Durham, London, and Winchester are ex-officio members of the House of Lords. The remaining places on the Bishops' Bench are held by the 21 diocesan bishops who have been in post the longest.

On Monday, Bishop Stevens, the convener of the Bishops in the Lords, said: "The discussion is about whether it would be helpful to the Church, and, indeed, to Parliament, for the Bishops' Bench to be both male and female in rather quicker time than the present process would naturally allow. . .

"We have started to consult about this, including consulting with some senior ordained women about what their views would be about some positive affirmative action."

The proposals will not be put before the General Synod. Rather, both Houses of Parliament would have to pass an amendment to the Bishopric Act.

Bishop Stevens reported that "a significant number" of parliamentarians would like to see women bishops appear more quickly than they might under the present system.

Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP for Meriden, said: "At present, many ordained women have reported feeling that they are still regarded as second best, which will persist unless we are success-ful in getting a mix of men and women bishops in the Upper House."

And, on Tuesday, Helen Goodman, Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, said: "To have places reserved solely for men brings into question the legitimacy of bishops in the Lords in a modern democracy. Since the seats are currently allocated on a seniority basis, changing this will require legislation, which the Labour Party will be happy to support."

Nothing can be done until the General Synod has passed the legislation to enable women to become bishops, which it will have an opportunity to do in July. "This is not a bunch of people assuming that it is done and dusted," Bishop Stevens said. "We all want to respect synodical process, but we are starting to have some consultations so that . . . things will be able to move reasonably quickly before the end of this Parliament."

Shortlists discussed. Women could not be considered for vacant sees until the women-bishops legislation has been approved by the General Synod, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, reiterated on Monday. The earliest that this could happen would be November, when the relevant canon might be promulged.

Mike Truman, a diocesan-synod member in Guildford, said last week that he was "surprised" to learn that the Crown Nominations Commission would not consider women candidates when it met to find a new bishop for the diocese on 21 and 22 July, after the General Synod vote in York on giving the Measure final approval. "It seems perverse to ignore the likelihood that the law will have changed before the appointment is made."

He urged the Commission to consider shortlists that included women, "provided the interviews are taking place after the July vote".

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