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Multi-parish women's licences found to be 'deficient'

14 August 2015


Under licence: All Saints', Cheltenham

Under licence: All Saints', Cheltenham

“UNRESTRICTED Licences” granted to two women priests in a multi-parish benefice that includes a parish that does not accept the ministry of women are “deficient”, and fresh ones should be reissued, an independent review has concluded.

The adjudication by Sir Philip Mawer, who was appointed by the Archbishops to consider grievances from those who become concerned that the principles in the House of Bishops’ Declaration on women bishops are not being adhered to (News, 7 August), was published on Monday. It followed a letter to him from the director of Forward in Faith, Dr Colin Podmore, in April.

Dr Podmore expressed concern that the Revd Angela Smith had been licensed as an “Associate Priest in the North Cheltenham Team”, despite the fact that the Team Benefice included the parish of All Saints’, Cheltenham, which was to be treated as having passed Resolutions against the priestly ministry of women. He was writing on behalf of Forward in Faith, not the parish (which is not a member of the organisation), because this was an issue “of general relevance”.

Mrs Smith was licensed by the Bishop of Tewkesbury, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, on 22 January. She is married to the Team Rector, the Revd David Smith.

Dr Podmore emphasised that there was no intention of criticism of Mrs Smith or her husband. He argued that the Bishop could have licensed her to minister in certain named parishes rather than the whole benefice. Instead, Bishop Snow had offered an “oral assurance” that she would not minister as a priest in the parish of All Saints’.

Dr Podmore’s letter includes as “background” the suggestion that, under the leadership of the previous Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, the diocese of Gloucester was “widely perceived as hostile to traditional Catholics”; it also suggests that the Bishops have failed to help them to flourish.

In his reply, Bishop Snow confirmed that he had recently issued an identical licence to the Revd Liz Palin. Both women had been licensed to serve in the benefice rather than the team, and this was “highly significant”, he argued. Ms Palin had already exercised pastoral and diaconal ministry in the parish of All Saints’.

He conceded that during consultations on the appointment of Mrs Smith, the particular wording of the licence had not been discussed, but should have been. No concerns had been raised before the day of the licensing, he said, but he had given “verbal assurance” to the Bishop of Ebbsfleet on the day of the licensing that Mrs Smith would not minister at All Saints’. Assurance was, in fact, unnecessary, he argued, given that Resolutions were in place. Bishop Snow argued that to seek further written assurances “does nothing to build trust”, and could call into question the integrity of the Bishop, Archdeacon, and Team Rector.

He also argued that Dr Podmore’s assertions about the diocese were based on the comments of “one or two individuals” in the parish, and that “the vast majority of the congregation are more than satisfied with recent appointments.” A letter from Bishop Perham also disputed Dr Podmore’s characterisation of the diocese, and asked that the assertion that it was “hostile” be withdrawn.

In his judgment, Sir Philip said that the Resolutions passed by parishes had ceased to have legal effect, and so did not provide “clear legal protection”. Thus Bishop Snow was mistaken in asserting that he did not need to qualify Mrs Smith’s remit.

Sir Philip said that he did not doubt that, in deciding not to restrict expressly the scope of Mrs Smith’s ministry, Bishop Snow was “acting from the best of motives and in what he perceived to be the best interests both of Mrs Smith and of the whole benefice”. He had, however, “failed to make the appropriate pastoral and sacramental provision” for the parish of All Saints’. He noted that it “does not help the priest or anyone else concerned for there to be a lack of clarity on this matter”.

Sir Philip concluded that the fresh licences should make it clear that the authorisation granted to Mrs Smith and Ms Palin did not extend to undertaking priestly ministry in the parish of All Saints’.

He did not, however, accept Dr Podmore’s recommendation that all licences to assistant clergy in such benefices should spell out in which parishes the priest was licensed to minister. He drew a distinction between priests who were members of the team in a team ministry — whose ministry could not be restricted in such a way — and those who were to serve otherwise than as a member of the team. In the latter case, he recommended that the PCCs of the parish should be consulted, before the licence was granted, about the nature and extent of the priest’s ministry, and that the licence should then specify these things.

His adjudication spoke of the appointment of a female diocesan bishop, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, as the opportunity for all to “make a fresh start. I can only hope that they will take the opportunity to do so.”

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