Court dismisses query over women bishops

19 June 2015

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Legal history: St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, permanent home of the Arches Court 

Legal history: St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, permanent home of the Arches Court 

THE Court of the Vicar-General of the province of Canterbury dismissed the legal objection of the Priest-in-Charge of St George's, Hanworth Park, London, the Revd Paul Stewart Williamson, to the election of the Archdeacon of Hackney, the Ven. Rachel Treweek, as Bishop of Gloucester.

Fr Williamson had filed written particulars of objection dated 5 June 2015, and appeared at the hearing of his objection on 15 June before the Vicar-General, the Rt Worshipful Timothy Briden.

The objection did not relate to the suitability of the Bishop-elect for episcopal office, but asserted that, as a matter of principle: "A woman cannot be made a bishop in the Church of England." Hence the challenge was directed to the legal basis on which women might become bishops.

The jurisdiction of the court to entertain objections to the confirmation of episcopal elections was limited. In the 1902 case of Rex v. Archbishop of Canterbury, it was held that fitness for office was not a lawful subject of inquiry. The only judicial inquiry was whether the proper forms of election had been followed, and whether the Bishop-elect was qualified as the law required.

To be successful, Fr Williamson's legal challenge of objection had in some way to circumvent the relevant provisions of the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure 2014 and Canon No. 33.

After the completion of its synodical and parliamentary stages, the Measure received the Royal Assent on 23 October 2014. Therefore, in accordance with section 4 of the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Measure now had the "force and effect of an Act of Parliament".

Section 1(1) of the Measure, which came into force on 14 November 2014, states: "It shall be lawful for the General Synod to make provision by Canon for enabling women, as well as men, to be consecrated to the office of bishop if they otherwise satisfy the requirements of Canon Law as to the persons who may be consecrated as bishops."

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Paragraph 1 of Canon 33, which was executed on 17 November 2014, states that a man or a woman may be consecrated as bishop, and that, in the forms of service contained in the Book of Common Prayer, or in the Ordinal, words importing the masculine gender in relation to bishops are construed as including the feminine.

The Vicar-General said that Fr Williamson was "no stranger to the courts". In the years after the enactment of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, he instituted a number of legal proceedings directed to establishing that the ordination of women to the priesthood was unlawful, and that the 1993 Measure was ineffective.

The Court of Appeal had, in March 1994 and September 1996, comprehensively rejected Fr Williamson's arguments, and upheld the legality of the ordination of women. The Vicar-General said that those "familiar with Fr Williamson's previous forensic excursions" would recognise that his present objections were "a reworking of the arguments" that had previously failed before the Court of Appeal.

Since there was "no material distinction to be drawn" between the 1993 Measure and the 2014 Measure, it would be possible to dismiss the present objections simply on the basis that the Vicar-General's court was bound by the earlier decisions of the Court of Appeal.

Fr Williamson also made the point, as he had in 1996, that the ordained ministry of women was incompatible with the Queen's coronation oath.

The Court of Appeal said on that occasion that the references in the coronation oath to "the Protestant reformed Religion established by law", and "the settlement of the Church of England and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England" referred to "such religion, church doctrine, worship, discipline, and government as so established from time to time, thereby admitting of change in accordance with the law by which it was established".

The supremacy of the Queen in Parliament was a fundamental principle of English law, and the regularity of the consents necessary for the enactment of a statute was not justiciable in the courts.

The same reasoning applied to the 2014 Measure as to the 1993 Measure, the Vicar-General said, and that precluded any challenge on the basis of the coronation oath.

Fr Williamson also argued that the legislation contravened holy scripture, the first Canon of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, and a quotation from the Archbishops' 1919 report The Ministry of Women, that "save in obscure and heretical sects there have never been female (bishops) or priests in the catholic church".

The Vicar-General said that the writings on which Fr Williamson relied could not, as a matter of law, prevail over what the Court of Appeal had described as "the invulnerability of an Act of Parliament", which was shared by the Measure.

Since 1993, women had been ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. It was inconceivable, the Vicar-General said, that the present Archbishops of Canterbury and York would endorse that part of the 1919 report as being of contemporary relevance.

Any gender-based impediment to the confirmation of Archdeacon Treweek's election to the see of Gloucester was completely removed by the 2014 Measure and Canon 33, and Fr Williamson was debarred from any further objection to the court, the court ruled.

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