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Women as Bishops

From the Nov. 2 edition of The Living Church

Catholic Voices

In November 2012 legislation for women to be bishops in the Church of England failed to receive final approval. 132 members of the General Synod’s House of Laity voted in favour, 74 against (six fewer than the necessary two-thirds). But in July 2014 new legislation passed comfortably — by 152 to 45 (with five recorded abstentions).

What had happened? Had 20-odd lay members changed their minds about women’s ordination? Were members swayed — on either occasion — by powerful speeches?

No. For many years, less than one-third of the House of Laity has been opposed in principle. The former legislation was defeated because a small number who support women in the episcopate judged its terms unacceptable. In July 2014 the Catholic Group signalled that it was content with the new package, and encouraged those who could in conscience vote in favour to do so. On both occasions those in touch with the swing voters knew well in advance what the outcome would be, even if the legislation’s supporters did not

The failed legislation was unacceptable for several reasons. The power of parochial church councils (PCCs) to restrict eucharistic presidency to ordained men would have been repealed. Even if a PCC’s lay members voted unanimously for male episcopal ministry, their parish priest could have vetoed the request. Detailed arrangements would have been contained in schemes made (and reviewed every five years) by each diocesan bishop (diocesan synods would merely have been consulted). They would have differed between dioceses.

The legislation’s authors were determined to cast opponents as misogynists, so it spoke only of requesting a “male priest” or “male bishop” — suppressing the fact that for Catholics male priests ordained by women, and male bishops at whose episcopal ordinations a woman presided, would be equally unacceptable. A majority in the synod, unwilling to countenance any official recognition that there might be theological objections to women as priests and bishops, forced the House of Bishops to remove a reference to “theological convictions” underlying a request.

People would only have been required to “have regard” for a detailed code of practice (a draft ran to 49 pages): they could disobey it for unspecified “cogent reasons.” If the code were breached, the only remedy would be judicial review in the secular courts — an expensive and lengthy process. The code would only be completed once the legislation was in force; at final approval, no one knew what it would contain. Determined resistance throughout the process to any concession to opponents made watering down of the draft seem very likely.

In short, the legislation would disempower the laity, and provide for a postcode lottery, a bureaucratic nightmare, a lawyers’ paradise, and an uncertain future. At no point in its synodical progress did it enjoy a two-thirds majority in the House of Laity. Its promoters seem to have gambled that the 2010 elections would produce a more sympathetic house, and when that did not happen, gambled again that the middle ground could be persuaded that women must be bishops immediately, regardless of the terms.

A Lambeth Palace internet campaign called “Enough Waiting” that aimed “to persuade General Synod members to back the new women bishops legislation” (“new” because the House of Bishops had watered down one subclause to placate hard-line supporters) was singularly inept. Wiser counsellors would have advised that public pressure via the Internet is not the best way to change the minds of a dozen identifiable independent-minded individuals. The campaign merely stiffened their resolve not to be browbeaten into voting for legislation that they believed was profoundly illiberal and would be disastrous for the Church.

Catholics were right to defeat — with the swing voters’ help — legislation that would have condemned the Church of England to decades of trench warfare. Many, including the Archbishop of York, have now said they are glad the legislation was defeated. On the day my own emotions were relief, but also sadness. The process had consumed large measures of time, energy, and money, distracting many from the Church’s mission. Its failure to produce an agreed outcome seriously damaged the church’s public standing. And the issue would not go away.

Some hard-liners were tempted to gamble again. They suggested that new legislation could wait until 2016 when, they hoped, a new synod would be more favourable. But the consensus among the church’s leadership, and the more statesmanlike proponents, was that only a swift solution could restore credibility. And plainly, that could only be achieved by a fresh approach and a significant degree of compromise. The belief that, if the synod failed to approve women bishops, Parliament would impose its will — in a matter of doctrine — on what is now regarded as a “faith community” seems implausible, but the division within the church that this would have caused may have been another factor encouraging proponents to compromise.

Archbishop Welby’s reconciliation expertise was crucial. Under the guidance of his new director of reconciliation, David Porter (an Ulsterman heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process), facilitated conversations involved participants from across the synod spectrum. They conversed for the first time about their feelings, hopes, and fears, and gained understanding of each other’s positions. A degree of trust began to develop. In July 2013 the whole synod met in discussion groups with external facilitators. We can recognize now the guidance of the Holy Spirit — in November 2012 and in the subsequent process.

Conventions were torn up when a group including opponents was appointed to both draft and steer new legislation, proceeding by consensus rather than taking votes. The resulting package was fast-tracked to final approval within a year (compared with seven-and-a-half years for the failed legislation).

Of course compromise was needed on both sides. Catholics had consistently campaigned for bishops ministering to Catholic parishes to have jurisdiction. But this was an ideal, not a necessity (potestas jurisdictionis and potestas ordinis have never universally been held together, either in the Church of England or that of Rome), and it was not achievable.

The legislation is very brief and simple, and contains few legal safeguards. It thereby fulfils the proponents’ desire to have no discrimination against women on the face of the legislation. For Catholics, this is preferable to legislation that purported to offer security but did not. In any case, the secular liberalism that now dominates public policy makes it unwise to rely on state law for protection. Instead, provisions were secured in a House of Bishops’ Declaration, entrenched by a dual key: the synod cannot amend or revoke it, and the bishops can only do so with the support of two-thirds majorities in each synodical house.

The declaration is enforceable through a dispute resolution procedure established under canon, involving an independent reviewer with Church House staff support. Failure to participate in the process will be a clergy discipline offence. Experience in other contexts indicates that office holders will strive to avoid public criticism from an ombudsman. This should give the reviewer leverage to secure settlement of disputes, if the threat of submitting a grievance has not done so. It also seems likely that clergy discipline tribunals will regard failure to comply with the reviewer’s recommendations as misconduct.

The 1993 Act of Synod that the declaration supersedes in respect of episcopal ministry was unenforceable, so this is a significant gain. The motion to rescind it saw a moment of pure synodical theatre. A veteran campaigner against it made a brief speech of triumph, only to be followed by a leading member of the Catholic Group explaining why Catholics would vote in favour: “It is actually being replaced by something stronger.”

The declaration fulfils the bishops’ “duty to ensure that the welfare of the whole Church of England is sustained in all its theological depth and breadth” (para. 4).

Five “Guiding Principles” (para. 5) are fundamental. The Church of England locates “its own clear decision” within “a broader process of discernment” (i.e., reception) “within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God.” Because those “who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests” continue to be within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition, “the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.” Hence “pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority … will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.”

The declaration promises “equal treatment” regarding resource issues (para. 15). Diocesan senior leadership roles will be “filled by people from across the range of traditions” (para. 13). In discerning vocations “bishops will continue not to discriminate on the grounds of a candidate’s theological conviction on this issue.” Ordination services will comply with the guiding principles: respecting both the diocesan’s jurisdiction and the ordinand’s conscience (para. 15).

PCCs will be able to pass, by a simple majority, a resolution requesting priestly and episcopal ministry that accords with their theological conviction on this issue (paras. 19-20). All concerned will be obliged to do “everything possible” to avoid conflict with this theological conviction (para. 23). Bishops will be obliged to exercise their veto over appointments to protect lay representatives from having to do so (para. 24).

Alternative bishops, who cannot be retired bishops (para. 26), will “provide oversight” (para. 22), having responsibilities like those of suffragan bishops (para. 29). The archbishops will be obliged to secure a sufficient supply of suitable bishops, the suffragan sees held by the three Provincial Episcopal Visitors being the starting point (para. 30).

The promises in the Act of Synod were mostly kept, but if they were not, there was no redress. If these new promises are reneged upon, we can have recourse to the independent reviewer.

My summary can hardly do justice to 43 paragraphs, but it should suffice to explain why synod members who defeated the previous legislation because they wanted the Church of England to remain broad and diverse felt able to vote for the new legislation, and why the Catholic Group (though obliged to vote against un-catholic unilateralism in matters of holy order) did not campaign against it.

For many years, Forward in Faith and the Catholic Group have been campaigning not to prevent the Church of England from ordaining women as bishops (which was inevitable), but to secure provision that would enable those who cannot receive their ministry, directly or indirectly, to remain in the Church of England with integrity. The traditional Catholic Group party on the last evening of the synod served “Buck’s fizz” (orange juice mixed with champagne): it was a sad day, but also at least half a celebration.


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