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Women-bishops dispute breaks out in north-west-London church

10 December 2021

Creative Commons

St Martin’s, Ruislip

St Martin’s, Ruislip

DISQUIET continues at a north-west-London church where the PCC passed a resolution to place the parish under the oversight of the Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, in the month before the retirement of their incumbent. Mediation proposed by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has been paused.

The vote at St Martin’s, Ruislip, took place on 29 June, after the announcement in March 2021 of the retirement of the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent as Bishop of Willesden (News, 19 March), and before the announcement of his successor, Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, at the end of last month (News, 26 November). It was passed by 17 votes to ten with no abstentions. The Vicar, Canon Simon Evans, retired at the end of July.

The speed and circumstances of the switch are disturbing, supporters of women’s ordination say. Canon Emma Percy, who chairs WATCH, said that she was aware of other churches at which resolutions had been passed just before the retirement of an incumbent. It was sometimes regarded as an “act of loyalty” to the theological convictions of the incumbent, she said.

Guidance accompanying the House of Bishops’ Declaration of 2014, which states that “a PCC that has passed a resolution is expected to review it from time to time especially when a vacancy arises in the benefice,” should be mandatory, she said. “It would enable parishes to discuss their position looking forward, without the need to maintain the incumbent’s theology. For parishes where there is consensus about the resolutions, this will be positive. Where there is more diversity it can allow for a freer discussion.”

A submission to the Church Times last month from a concerned PCC member, who asked not to be named, stated that “it was the knowledge of a forthcoming interregnum that gave urgency to the decision to consider voting on a Resolution.” The process of passing the vote, beginning with the first mention of the possibility at the annual parochial church meeting (APCM) in April, took nine weeks.

Accounts of the election of PCC members at the APCM vary. The submission’s claim that the nominations list was closed once the numbers on it reached 15 (the maximum under the Church Representation Rules), with those 15 deemed “elected”, is disputed by the lay vice-chair, Edward Stothard. He reports that the churchwardens had agreed that, owing to Covid-19 restrictions, it would be preferable not to have an election with voting slips being distributed. “Fr Simon did state clearly during the meeting that if the congregation wished to put forward more than 15 candidates, they were, of course, free to do so. No one did.”

On 2 May, five days after the APCM, the PCC voted to start the process of consultation at its next meeting, leading in due course to a vote about passing a resolution. By the date of the PCC vote on the resolution, there were (from non-PCC members) 59 submissions representing 73 people in favour in remaining under the Bishop of Willesden’s oversight; 12 submissions representing 15 people in favour of moving to the Bishop of Fulham’s oversight; one submission expressing no preference; and two “unclear” submissions. From PCC members, there were eight “pro-Willesden” submissions and two “pro-Fulham”.

The PCC member told the Church Times that the House of Bishops’ Declaration guidance note needed amendment, “to ensure that PCC members fully understand the responsibility they have towards those they represent”.

They reported that many families had moved to other local churches, that an associated priest no longer celebrated masses, and that several people had resigned from voluntary positions. Several people had cancelled their regular giving, and the church had had to negotiate a decrease of almost 50 per cent in Common Fund giving. Mr Stothard said that a large percentage of income had ordinarily come from hall lettings — a stream adversely affected by the pandemic.

Since mediation was proposed by Bishop Mullally, in July, three meetings have taken place, but, on 26 October, the PCC was informed of the mediators’ decision to “pause” the process.

A statement from the two Bishops last month said: “We realise that there remains a substantial difference of opinion amongst the congregation at St Martin’s, Ruislip. While we were saddened that efforts to bring the church community together through mediation have been unsuccessful, we will continue to support the parish however we can. We hope and pray that, through dialogue, a way forward can be found.”

It is understood that discussions are currently taking place about the position of St Martin’s between the Bishops, the Archdeacon of Northolt, and the London diocese registrar.

In a statement this week, Forward in Faith maintained its view “that the House of Bishops’ Declaration serves the Church well and that the Declaration works best when there is a spirit of generosity on all sides as to its application.” Its guidance to PCCs advises that a resolution “should be considered by the PCC ideally before a woman is appointed as a bishop in the diocese concerned (so that the resolution is a general statement of the PCC’s position and cannot be viewed as an ungracious response to the appointment of a particular individual)”.

It also states that a PCC “cannot simply decide to proceed according to the majority opinion among those who choose to vote in a congregational ‘referendum’ or to submit views as part of a consultation process. That is not how the Church of England is governed.”

It continues: “Members of the PCC should be reminded that the Resolution is not an opinion poll as to whether they as individuals are in favour of or opposed to the ordination of women. Rather, they are being asked to consider what ministry will be appropriate for the parish, having regard not only to their own theological convictions but those of other members of the congregation.”

On 10 November, a grievance submission was sent to Sir William Fittall, the independent reviewer, by those unhappy about the move of oversight. In his reply, sent on 23 November, he wrote that he had “no power to investigate the matters that you describe”.

Last week, Canon Percy said that those unhappy with the passing of a resolution and who wished to “stay with the mainstream” were treated unfairly under the independent reviewer process, with no recourse to appeal. There had been other parishes, she said, where it was “clear that the majority wanted to be open to the full ministry of women, but pastoral reorganisation, or a vocal group, appear to override their concerns”.

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