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Women bishops possible in 2014, says Fittall

17 January 2014

RICHARD J. S. BRIGG

Prescient?: a purple tree, decorated with pictures of Women as Bishops, topped off with a Mitre and an apron reading 'A women's Place is in the House!', was created by the Revd Sharon Constable and the Revd Sue Paterson, for the Loughborough and Melton churches, in Leicester diocese, for Christmas 2013

Prescient?: a purple tree, decorated with pictures of Women as Bishops, topped off with a Mitre and an apron reading 'A women's Place is in the Hous...

THE first woman bishop in the Church of England could be appointed by Christmas, the Secretary General of the Church of England said on Friday.

At a press briefing in preparation for the meeting of General Synod in February, William Fittall said that it was "entirely conceivable" that the appointment could be made, but cautioned that the Synod was "an extremely unpredictable body".

In November, the General Synod voted overwhelmingly to welcome the new women-bishops proposals, by 378 to eight (News, 22 November). On 11 February, the revision stage of the draft legislation will take place, unusually, without having first been seen by a revision committee. This was the General Synod's "one opportunity to engage with the detail of the Measure and the Canon", Mr Fittall emphasised on Friday.

"There's a strong hope that the momentum that's been achieved, the consensus that's been building, will carry us through," he said.

The report by the House of Bishops, published today, states that "there is a strong case for getting on and sealing the deal." The report, which will also be debated on Tuesday, includes a draft Declaration from the House of Bishops and a draft mandatory disputes-resolution procedure.

If the Measure is approved by the General Synod next month, it will be referred to the dioceses under Article 8. Standing Orders state that the dioceses must have at least six months to vote on business sent down to them under this Article. The House of Bishops has recommended, however, that this deadline be reduced to just over three months, to 22 May. Next month, the Synod will need to agree, by a 75-per-cent majority, to suspend the standing order.

The House of Bishops' report notes that the dioceses have already considered legislation on women bishops, and have approved it by 42 to two, and that there is a "strong desire in the Synod and the wider Church to make rapid progress". It also states that the new legislation is "simple and is part of a package that has had overwhelming support in the General Synod and will not in practice, after February, be susceptible to further significant change, and that "there is something to be said for getting the legislation through the Synod and into the parliamentary process in July rather than November."

After speaking of the momentum behind the new Measure, and suggesting that "on all sides of the argument there is a weariness about this subject," Mr Fittall warned that the smooth passage of the package was by no means certain.

"The vote in November was, in a sense, a vote on process: it was moving things along; and if you listen carefully to some of the speeches made in November, many were very enthusiastic, but there were qualifications and caveats from some people," he said. "I think it would be unwise to approach this Synod on the basis that it's all going to be entirely smooth and straightforward and predictable, because General Synod, at the end of the day, is an extremely unpredictable body."

If the legislation secures final approval at the York meeting of the Synod in July, it will then go before to Parliament, and its Ecclesiastical Committee, for approval. It must then receive Royal Assent and the Canon must get royal licence. Finally, it must be promulged by the Synod. The earliest that this could take place would be in November. It would then be possible for a women to be appointed as bishop.

"There is no shortage of vacancies coming up," Mr Fittall said on Friday.

The report from the House of Bishops makes transitional provision for those parishes that, under existing legislation, have passed resolutions to restrict aspects of their ministry to men or petitioned for external episcopal ministry. The report states that these resolutions or petitions "should be treated for two years after the date on which the Amending Canon is promulged as if they were resolutions passed under paragraph 20". Paragraph 20 sets out how PCCs can pass a new resolution requesting external episcopal ministry.

This provision was welcomed by Forward in Faith on Friday, as were other "minor improvements" to the package. However, the Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, who chairs Forward in Faith, said that it remained "essential that an acceptable way of proceeding in relation to the consecration of Traditional Catholic bishops is agreed before the legislation is referred to the dioceses".

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