By Gavin Drake
Almost exactly one year to the day that the Church of England’s General Synod declined final approval for legislation that would have permitted women to be consecrated as bishops, the Synod voted by an overwhelming majority to give first consideration to new legislation.
The anger, bitterness, and recriminations that followed last year’s vote were absent in a debate that was marked instead by a willingness to understand the contrary position and a clear determination that the current draft legislation should be approved as soon as synodical processes will allow.
The previous attempt was dogged by arguments about the nature of the provision to be provided for those with theological objections to women bishops: Anglo-Catholics whose concerns centre largely over questions of sacramental assurance and conservative evangelicals whose primary concern is about headship.
The new proposed legislation is a package: the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure simply provides that the C of E can legislate by canon to permit women to be bishops; the Draft Amending Canon Number 33 amends various existing canons to remove the prohibition on women being ordained as bishop and requires the House of Bishops to make regulations providing for a dispute resolution procedure if any party believes that the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests has been broken.
The bishops’ declaration hasn’t yet been made. A draft declaration prepared by the steering group that prepared the proposals is expected to be debated by the bishops at their meeting in December.
The proposals “look to the day when the Church of England as an ecclesial entity will have made a clear decision to open all orders of ministry to women and men without distinction, whereby all those so ordained are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy,” said the Rt. Rev. James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester, as he moved the steering committee’s report. “But they also look to us being the kind of church within which, that clear decision having been made, those who out of theological conviction take a different view on that matter may continue to flourish, playing a full part within the life and structures of our church.”
He said that a vote for the motion before the Synod was “a vote for this process to continue in a way that is purposeful, considered, consultative, transparent, hopefully reasonably swift but not over-hasty, and prayerful.”
The package of proposals was welcomed by most of the campaigning groups, sometimes cautiously.
The proposals were “very significant improvements on the package that we had before us last year,” said Canon Simon Killwick, chairman of the Catholic Group on General Synod. “Clearly, a great deal of trust is still required on all sides. … And I do thank God that there is such a positive atmosphere of trust in the Synod today.”
“If anyone had told me that one year on from last November we would be where we are I would have said ‘that’s impossible,’ but by the grace of God it has been possible and here we are,” said Christina Rees, former chair of Women and the Church (WATCH).
“What we have in front of us works, and it works for all of us, no matter where we are coming from on this matter,” said Prebendary David Houlding, a prominent Anglo-Catholic member of the Synod. “Here we have a measure, plain and simple — a one-clause measure in effect — that will enable women to be consecrated without qualification or limited to be admitted to the office of bishop. This must be good news. But there is equally good news in the declaration that will accompany it from the House of Bishops, which provides an ecclesial life and sacramental assurance that we have been arguing for over these past years.”
He added: “We are all loyal Anglicans, and an honoured place is assured for all in these proposals. The battle, surely, is over. Let’s now get on with the mission.”
Others were more guarded. Susie Leafe, director of the conservative evangelical group Reform, said she could not say that “all was well” with the proposed measure and “cannot in good conscience” vote for the package of proposals.
“We claim that this package is designed to enable all to flourish, yet I and my church can only flourish once we have denied our theological convictions and accepted a woman as our chief pastor,” she said. “You may say that we are offered the opportunity to accept pastoral and sacramental ministry from another bishop, but responsibility for this lies in the hands of a woman.”
She said that the measure risked “alienating churches which are sending large numbers of men for ordination and whose churches are generally growing and whose congregations are generally youthful.”
At the conclusion of the debate, 378 members of the Synod voted in favour of the proposals. Just eight members voted against and there were 25 recorded abstentions. The Synod voted to send the measure for “revision in the whole Synod,” effectively removing the Revision Committee stage. It is expected to return to the Synod in February and could be sent to the dioceses for their approval then.
If a majority of dioceses give their approval to the measure, it could receive Final Approval as early as July. It would then need the consent of both Houses of Parliament before it can receive Royal Assent and become law.
In Other Business
The Synod endorsed a motion on “intentional evangelism,” from the Archbishop of York, the Most Rev. John Sentamu. The motion supports the establishment of an Archbishops’ Task Group on Evangelism, and asks every diocesan and deanery synod and Parochial Church Council to “spend the bulk of one meeting annually and some part of every meeting focusing on sharing experiences and initiatives for making new disciples.” It also urges “every local church in 2014 prayerfully to try at least one new way, appropriate to their local context, of seeking to make new disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Introducing the debate, Archbishop Sentamu said that evangelism was nearer his heart than any other theme. Not every Christian is an evangelist but “every Christian is a witness,” he said. “Witnesses are empowered by the Holy Spirit simply to share what they have experienced. … All people in Britain experience weather, and they talk about it readily, and repeatedly. If only disciples of Jesus Christ in England did the same about him — and he is infinitely greater than British weather.”
Archbishop Sentamu chose the theme of poverty for his presidential address. This is a significant political issue in Britain, with the opposition Labour party making capital out of what it calls the Cost of Living Crisis.
“Increasing poverty in a land of plenty” is a “blight” on Great Britain, Sentamu said. “We are a developed economy and a First World country, so how can it be that in this day and age we are seeing malnutrition, food poverty and energy poverty at such levels in our country?”
The archbishop quoted a recent regional newspaper report about a trebling of the number of people admitted to hospital in the northeastern city of Leeds to be treated for malnutrition: “How can it be that last year more than 27,000 people were diagnosed as suffering from malnutrition in Leeds — not Lesotho, not Liberia, not Lusaka, but Leeds?”
He called on churches to demonstrate “love in action” to tackle the problem, saying that the “real strength of the church” is “its extensive presence on the ground in areas of economic stress and strain as well as in more prosperous places.”
He added: “The Church can make an impact when its members, at every level, recognise that they have a responsibility to reflect the experience, the life, the troubles, the fears and the hopes of those among whom we serve; whether it is the individual local church volunteer helping their neighbour; the parish making representatives to the local council; groups of Christian business people challenging company ethics; bishops speaking to civic leaders in their dioceses; or the Lords Spiritual raising the debate in the House of Lords.”
The Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a presentation to the Synod outlining his activities since the Synod last met in July and spoke of the “terrible atrocities” that had taken place in Peshawar and Nairobi.
He had been able “to get, fleetingly, to Nairobi for a condolence visit” and received “an emotional and warm welcome from Archbishop [Eliud] Wabukala.” He offered to make a visit to Peshawar, but the Archbishop of Pakistan “felt it would not be helpful” because of the security situation in the region.
Archbishop Welby asked the Synod to send “a further message of support to our suffering sisters and brothers in Pakistan,” adding that the attacks “are amongst many which have been afflicting Christians around the world.”
“Many parts of the Anglican Communion suffer greatly and the Synod will acknowledge both the suffering and courage of churches in places like Nigeria. The issue of how we support each other and how we understand and confront violent attacks in the light and grace of Christ is one of the greatest of our age.”
The archbishop said he had made ten “personal and private” visits to other primates of the Anglican Communion and hoped to visit the other 27 within the next 12 months.
While in Nairobi he met primates who had arrived for the Gafcon conference. “There were naturally rather different views expressed, including about me, not invariably warm, but I was most glad to have had the opportunity to meet, and the general response was very kind.”
The C of E is awaiting a report from a commission appointed to “advise the House of Bishops on the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality.” Archbishop Welby told the Synod that the group, chaired by retired Civil Servant Sir Joseph Pilling, had completed its work and said that the report would be published “soon.” Asked to clarify, he said that “soon means not very long, fairly imminently, but not very soon.”
Further discussion of the Pilling report is expected in December by the House of Bishops, which will decide when and how it should be published and whether any change in policy or doctrine should be proposed.
Archbishop Welby stressed that the report “will be a document which will offer findings and recommendations from the members of the group for the Church of England to consider. It will not be a new policy statement from the Church of England. That will be made quite clear when the report is published.”
The other major item of business was a debate supporting the C of E’s work with schools. The history of education in England means that many schools have a church foundation.
The Synod endorsed an amendment to a motion from the Rt. Rev. Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, calling on parishes to “identify and implement good practice to strengthen links between Church schools and parishes.”
Smith said the original motion “calls upon dioceses to do things; it calls upon the ministry council to do things; it invites the Archbishops’ Council to do things; but it omits parishes from doing anything and it seems to me that this is the key place that difference is likely to be made.”
Gavin Drake is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in the English West Midlands.