By John Martin
Jeremy Vine, a leading BBC broadcaster and high-profile Anglican, found himself unusually at loss for words a few days ago. In a game of chess with his eight year-old daughter he found her insisting that chessboard bishops were women.
After the July sessions of its General Synod in York the Church of England remains in limbo on women in the episcopate. Expectations that Synod would give the Measure final approval July 9 went unfulfilled.
In a much-anticipated move it voted by 288 to 144 with 15 abstentions to ask the House of Bishops to reconsider an amendment it put forward that sought to make provision for opponents.
Synod faced a tricky dilemma. There is now a clear consensus in favour of women bishops with 42 out of 44 diocesan synods registering strong support. There was no certainty, however, that the Measure would succeed without opponents of women bishops being persuaded that adequate provision had been made for their consciences. On the other hand there was concern that too much compromise would make women permanent second-class bishops.
In a bid to get the legislation across the line the House of Bishops proposed an amendment, Clause 5(1)c, giving dissenting parishes the right to request a male bishop “on grounds of theological conviction.” Ahead of the sessions in York, however, it became clear that many members who were strongly in favour were not willing to bend that far.
WATCH (Women and the Church) said the Church of England was ready to agree to women bishops, but “not at any price.” Rather than risk the spectacle of the entire Measure being defeated, something the public and Parliament would not easily understand, Synod voted to adjourn the debate.
Moving his adjournment motion, the Rt. Rev. Trevor Willmott, Bishop of Dover, said Clause 5 had “caused widespread dismay among many who supported the Measure up to now.” The House of Bishops will meet Sept. 12 and 13to find an acceptable formula. That will not be easy.
The Catholic Group in Synod said the vote for adjournment “called in question” the readiness of the Church to provide for the convictions of all its members. Forward in Faith called on the bishops to “strand firm in the face of unwarranted pressure.”
Reform, composed of conservative evangelicals, said it stood ready to cooperate “if there is a genuine desire to see a permanent place — for people who on theological grounds cannot accept women bishops.”
Throughout deliberations on women bishops there has always been the possibility of Parliament intervening if Church structures fail to deliver women bishops. A Member of Parliament who sits in Synod as Second Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, issued a not-too-subtle warning.
He said there was no way he would be able “to explain to the House of Commons that when this Church had voted 42 dioceses to two, it was not possible to develop a Measure which commands the support of the whole Synod; and in particular commands the support of those who campaign for such a Measure.”
Sources in the House of Bishops say that as yet there is no certainty on how to steer forward. Some still believe their amendment strikes the right balance.