How Did We Get Here?

Catholic Voices

By Prudence Dailey

The compact geography of England means that our General Synod is able to meet much more frequently — twice or occasionally three times a year — than on the other side of the Atlantic. The advantages of this arrangement include the opportunity to work towards important decisions through several stages of deliberation, and the opportunity for members, who are elected for five-year terms, actually to get to know each other personally, and to establish relationships across diverse backgrounds and positions. This, in turn, ought to lead — at least in theory — to greater mutual respect. It should also be noted that, for certain types of business, a two-thirds majority in all three Houses (bishops, clergy, and laity) is required for the legislation to pass at the final stage, although only simple majorities are required up to that point.

Twenty years ago, when the Church of England’s General Synod approved a measure to ordain women as priests, assurances were given to those who in conscience could not accept this development that they would continue to have an “honoured place” within the church, and that their “integrity” would be respected. An Act of Synod was passed to make arrangements for them, including the provision of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (“flying bishops”). Indeed, it is widely accepted that this measure could not have achieved the necessary two-thirds majority in all three Houses without such provisions.

In the initial stages of the discussion, once the General Synod had approved in principle that women should be bishops, many who opposed this decision recognized that the consecration of women to the episcopate was inevitable, and those backing the change said that it should be brought about in a way which enabled everyone to remain in the Church of England in good conscience. There was much talk of “squaring the circle,” and a number of contributors spoke of their desire to avoid becoming like the Episcopal Church, with deep divisions and warring factions, and attempts to subdue a minority through the raw exercise of power. The general mood was one of optimism: those who could not accept women as bishops believed that there was a genuine desire to accommodate them, and that a way would be found (just as it had been in 1992) for those with divergent convictions on the matter to live together in relative harmony.

In 2006, the Synod voted overwhelmingly to “take note” of a report which included proposals for Transferred Episcopal Authority. But at the following House of Bishops meeting, “senior women” made representations that they would not be prepared to be bishops under such arrangements, so they were dropped. Various alternative proposals for accommodation were put forward by traditional Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals, still confident at that stage that something suitable would emerge.

During an emotional debate in July 2008, however, every one of those proposals was in turn rejected by the Synod in favour of a simple Code of Practice, as supporters of women bishops expressed fears that the proposals for greater accommodation, enshrined in legislation, would result in women becoming “second-class” bishops, and assured the Synod that legislative provision should not be required if only we would all “trust the bishops.”

The Rt. Rev. Stephen Venner, then Bishop of Dover, a supporter of women as bishops, and generally  regarded as a liberal, was in tears as he said that

for the first time in my life I feel ashamed. We have talked for hours about wanting to give an honourable place to those who disagree; we have been given opportunities for both views to flourish; we have turned down almost every realistic opportunity for the views of those who are opposed to flourish; … and we still talk the talk of being inclusive and generous.

Both archbishops were clearly dismayed; at the end of the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury abstained on the motion to proceed to the next stage.

In July 2010, the archbishops attempted to salvage the situation by bringing forward an amendment to introduce “coordinate jurisdiction.” Whilst an overall majority of Synod members supported the amendment, it fell in the House of Clergy by just five votes.

It is worth noting that at no stage of the proceedings has there been a two-thirds majority in the House of Laity in favour of the proposals. After traditionalists repeatedly told the Synod that the proposed Code of Practice simply was not an adequate response to the substance of their theological objections to women bishops, it should have come as no surprise that the legislation was defeated. Advocates of women bishops should have realised that, much as they might have wished it otherwise, the Synodical process did what it was designed to do: ensure that major changes cannot be made without consensus, and that the majority cannot exercise tyranny over a substantial minority.

Instead, those of us who in good conscience voted against the measure have been collectively subjected to an outpouring of vitriol, bile, misrepresentation, and contempt, including (I am sorry to say) in some cases from other members of General Synod, through the media and social networks. Suddenly, there are cries that the House of Laity is unrepresentative of the laity at large, that the system is “broken,” and even that Parliament should intervene to impose women bishops on the church. Opponents of the measure are told that we have damaged the Church of England; we are caricatured as “extremists” and worse. We are threatened with a “single-clause measure” next time around, without even a Code of Practice to provide for those who cannot accept women as bishops. If ever there was a question whether legislative provision was really necessary — whether what was required was, after all, just more generous mutual trust — such an aspiration seems hopelessly naïve now.

Prudence Dailey is, since 2000, a member of the General Synod of the Church of England.

Update from the Feb. 3 edition of The Living Church
In “How Did We Get Here from There?” [TLC, Dec. 23] Prudence Dailey asserts that the 1992 General Synod legislation enabling women to become priests would not have achieved the required two-thirds majorities in all three houses without the additional provisions for “flying bishops” contained in the Act of Synod.

This is incorrect. The measure was passed in November 1992 with majorities of 75 percent (bishops), 70.4 percent (clergy), and 67.3 percent (laity), whereas the Act of Synod was first mentioned as a possibility only in April 1993, during the interrogation of church officials by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. In June the House of Bishops considered a draft text; in July this was published in a House of Bishops statement, and it was not until November 1993, a full year later, that it was approved by the whole Synod.

Indeed the act was necessary, but it was to obtain the approval of Parliament to the measure, not to pass it in the first place.

Simon Sarmiento
St Albans, England

Prudence Dailey replies:
Simon Sarmiento is, of course, quite right that in my article I inadvertently conflated two separate sets of events, and I am grateful to him for pointing out the error.

The legislation approved by General Synod in 1992 did contain clear, legally enforceable safeguards for opponents (Resolutions A and B), without which it would not have passed. The Act of Synod followed a year later, as Mr. Sarmiento says, in order to satisfy the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament.

Catholic Voices: Women in the Episcopate


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