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General Synod digest: future of Five Guiding Principles debated

16 July 2021

The Revd Esther Prior (Guildford), with praise for clergy who supported her while disagreeing

The Revd Esther Prior (Guildford), with praise for clergy who supported her while disagreeing

ON MONDAY, the General Synod took note of a report from the Implementation and Dialogue Group (IDG) on whether the Five Guiding Principles, established in 2014 to enable those unable to receive the ministry of female bishops or priests to flourish within the Church’s life and structures, were still “fit for purpose”.

The principles were integral to a House of Bishops Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests in 2018, and were not time-limited. In 2017, objections raised to the nomination of the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, led to his withdrawal. The Synod was due to debate the circumstances of that, in a private member’s motion first tabled by David Lamming in 2017. He withdrew it, but the take-note debate remained on the agenda.

The report was the outcome of research conducted in 2018 by the Implementation and Dialogue Group (IDG), and, introducing the debate, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, acknowledged that, as new experience had been gained, new questions were arising. He would have preferred a “less formal, in-person arrangement” for discussing it, he said, but, although the report was outdated, it was a platform to share instances of good practice.

He particularly welcomed the establishment of a Standing Commission to keep these matters under review: that should have been done in 2016, he acknowledged. He “neither accepted nor rejected” the report’s recommendations: some would be uncontroversial, some would take longer to work through. The Synod had “acted with God-given wisdom” in 2014, and he saw it as an act of witness.

The Revd Esther Prior (Guildford), in a maiden speech, described herself as an Evangelical woman, vicar of a Church Society sole-patronage church, but one for whom, nevertheless, “the word ‘headship’ causes my blood pressure to spike.” But she paid tribute to Canon David Banting (Chelmsford), a complementarian Evangelical, as “one of my greatest gospel partners”: someone who came to her defence in complementarian circles even though he could not agree with her on oversight.

Canon Banting happily declared himself “still reeling” at that acknowledgement. He told the Synod, in his last speech before standing down, that he saluted the Bishop of Maidstone, his own diocese of Chelmsford, and the Bishops of London and Penrith: “We disagree but agree to stand together and support each other.”

In another maiden speech, the Revd Christopher Trundle (London) described Mrs Prior as an encouraging example of where people of differing views were working together. “It is not just about peaceful co-existence, but joy in each other’s ministries,” he suggested. “The report reminds us that the task is not to raise awareness, but to work on relationships of trust and good will.”

The Revd Alicia Dring (Derby), in a maiden speech, felt unable to take note of the report. Mutual flourishing in her experience was not very mutual; it was formalised in institutional discrimination and often weaponised, she suggested. “Mutuality must work both ways. It must encompass the needs of the whole people of God, not a minority.”

The Revd Anne Stevens (London) was of the same mind. The report did not reflect the wider picture of the Church, she said. “We don’t get the voices of women clergy or their experiences on the ground; nor of bishops and archbishops — why very odd things are happening at consecrations — nor of lay people. This is a flawed report based on a flawed project.”

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, had found encouragement in his five ordination services, at which candidates from different wings of the Church had chosen to be ordained with their cohort. He saw this as “a positive step towards mutual flourishing” in a diocese that had 16 per cent of parishes that had petitioned for extended episcopal oversight. “Diversity can be a strength and glory of the diocese, not its weakness and shame,” he said.

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) was thankful for those who had drafted the principles in 2014, “enabling many of us to remain in our beloved Church of England, and to flourish”. The report before the Synod was “evidence of the comprehensive and thorough job they were invited to do”.

Jenny Humphreys (Bath & Wells) observed that there was already a higher percentage of non-ordaining bishops than of parishes requiring their oversight. With other speakers, she deplored the lack of transparency on parish websites about their theological position.

The Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) compared the resources given to the four per cent of people who could not accept the ordination of women with those given to disabled people and other minority groups: “resources the likes of us can only dream about”.

Canon Judith Maltby (Universities and TEIs) said that she had been conflicted, but could not vote to take note. She had committed herself to the Five Guiding Principles in 2014, but was concerned about how they had worked out in practice, as well as their impact on other episcopal Churches. Her questions to the Archbishop of Canterbury in July 2020, after his limiting to three the number of participating bishops at a consecration, had brought a reply from the Legal Department that “I wasn’t allowed to ask the question.” They had rolled out deference, she said.

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, was “a huge supporter” of the Principles, and remained committed to them. It was the firm principle of the first of these — emphasising “true and lawful” — that was in danger of being disregarded, and the experiences that she was hearing of men who had been ordained by a woman bishop were painful.

Dr John Appleby (Newcastle) saw much good in the review, and was committed to making mutual flourishing work, but he called on churches holding a conservative Evangelical view to make their theological position clear, “if they were proud of it and wished to defend it”.

The Revd David Fisher (Salisbury) noted the comments of a colleague at a vacancy-in-see committee: “We must have the Five Guiding Principles for you Anglo-Catholics.” They were for the whole Church, Fr Fisher had told him. “If they disappear, so will unity in the Church of England.”

Debbie Buggs (London) commended the report and the representative nature of the IDG group.

Bradley Smith (Chichester) warmly welcomed the report, and praised the response of the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, to two parishes’ requests for oversight from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, as “a model of pastoral practice based on clarity, integrity and trust. . . We have some way to go, but Chichester is a very different place since 2002.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, was intending to take note of the report, which she commended for its refusal to “shy away from sensitive issues”, but she had some concerns. She expressed her gratitude to the Bishops of Maidstone and Fulham, but said, “The work can’t stop here, nor [the acknowledgement] that sometimes it it hurts.

“My presence means that areas that have been fudged in the past can no longer be fudged. The new Standing Commission will need to hold us to account.” Women priests, she said, “are more often abused on social media — see how often I am subject to abuse. We need to get to grips with that . . . be intentionally engaged about where we stand. We have chosen to live with one anther in total agreement and love.”

A motion to close the debate was carried by 225 to 77, with six recorded abstentions.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) raised a point of order, asking the Synod for a procedural motion to move to next business. The debate had been a good one, she said, but given the deep concerns that many members had about the contents of the report, a move to next business could stop an acrimonious vote, allowing the Synod to register concerns without voting to take note.

The procedural motion was resisted as unable to go forward under Standing Orders.

The take-note motion was carried in a count by Houses: Bishops 25-1 with six recorded abstentions; Clergy 93-39 with 14 recorded abstentions; and Laity 93-40 with 20 recorded abstentions.

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