Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The Manchester Report: Opportunity Knocks on Women Bishops

The Women Bishops Legislative Drafting Group, chaired by the Bishop of Manchester, has now published its long-awaited report and, on a first reading, it seems generally excellent. As the saying goes, it ‘covers all the bases’, and it has done so in a way that, given the institutional bias against traditionalists (I refer not only to pressures applied on Resolutions A, B and C parishes, but to the identified lack of senior appointments), is commendably even-handed.

The Group was not asked to revisit arguments about women becoming bishops. Rather, as it its title demonstrates, its task was to prepare possible legislation to allow this to happen. However, as the Group pointed out, since General Synod has not decided how this should take place, it has had to prepare several possible scenarios. At the same time, though, this process itself has highlighted the issues General Synod will have to address when the time comes to choose.

Crucially, therefore, the Group identifies the primary issue facing the Synod as being that of comprehensiveness:

... far and away the most important question that the Church of England now has to face is the extent to which it wishes to continue to accommodate the breadth of theological views on this issue that it currently encompasses. (22, bold original)

Although the Group has indeed endeavoured to be even-handed, it clearly feels that this comprehensiveness should be maximised rather than minimised — something which many, though not all, will welcome.

Thus the report admits that the ‘clearest’ approach, with ‘the most obvious ecclesiological and theological coherence’, would be that advocated by WATCH (Women and the Church), GRAS (the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod) and others: simply to declare that women will be bishops, and to make no provision for those who for whom this would be a problem. This would also be the one most appealing to a society where ‘discrimination’ of any kind is anathema.

However, it recognizes not only that theological objections nevertheless clearly remain amongst some, but that this has legal, practical and, perhaps above all, moral implications — in the latter case particularly regarding assurances given during the debates about the ordination of women to the priesthood. It would also contradict the position Synod itself adopted when it agreed in July 2006 that ‘those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans’ (36).

Thus, whilst the report does not dismiss outright the ‘winner takes all’ approach (that is for General Synod to decide) it correctly points out what this would entail.

It is more dismissive, for reasons its sets out, of some of the proposals making provision for continued objection, including allying objecting parishes with the Diocese of Europe, bringing them under the care of a particular religious society with its own bishops, or creating numerous ‘peculiar jurisdictions’.

Instead, it considers first the creation of new, special dioceses within the existing provinces — one for York and two for Canterbury. Because parishes which opted into these dioceses would not be geographically contiguous, the result has been described as ‘akin to “Gruyère cheese”’. Given that most of us cannot spell Gruyère, let alone correctly identify it in on the cheese board, this is already being referred to as the ‘Swiss cheese model’ — an epithet which is likely to stick.

However, in presenting this and other options, the Group once again correctly identifies a crucial issue: in this case, the extent to which, if any provision is to be made, it needs to be (a) innovative and (b) legislative. Interestingly, the ‘new diocese’ approach is seen as involving ‘the least innovation’ (52), given that dioceses are a familiar Anglican structure. The necessary legislative provisions are then set out in an Annex (C) to the report.

This section is followed, however, by a detailed consideration of four ‘variations on a theme’, which constitutes a third, ‘middle ground’, approach, with each variation introducing a greater degree of legal provision. It is typical of the report’s strengths, however, that it specifically cautions against seeing this automatically as the ‘Goldilocks’ option:

It is a traditional Church of England reflex to look for the middle ground and by characterising the various versions of this approach in that way we are conscious of the risk that, if only subliminally, we shall appear to be weighting the arguments in their favour. That is not our intention. (70)

Let us hope the members of General Synod take note!

In three of the variations, the diocesan bishop would delegate oversight to a ‘complementary bishop’, in the fourth, responsibility would be transferred. In order of legislative enforcement, the first variation would involve a statutory ‘code of practice’, the second would retain Part II of the 1992 Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure in the legislation, thus allowing the legal provisions of Resolutions A and B to continue under the code of practice, the third variation would add more legislative force to the second, making the delegation itself mandatory, whilst the fourth would transfer responsibility to the complementary bishop.

The pros and cons of these variations are briefly presented. The report also includes a consideration of Canon A4, which has been seen in the past as being somewhat contradictory to the church’s present position on women clergy. Interestingly, the report concludes, following advice, that ‘the legal significance of Canon A 4 is ... essentially historical’, relating strictly to ordinations carried out using the Book of Common Prayer, and addressing only the seventeenth century concerns of Puritans and Roman Catholics. The accuracy of this conclusion is for others to decide, but it certainly cuts a Gordian Knot.

The one real disappointment I felt in the report, however, is its presentation of an alternative Canon. Whilst it rightly identifies that this would be necessary, its own suggestion (103) gives insufficient recognition to the position of those who do not accept women as priests and bishops.

What, then, should be the response, particularly from those who would have a problem with women bishops? The report recognizes that the latter fall into two categories — Catholics and Evangelicals — whose objections are on quite different grounds (62,63).

As one who moves between these groups, I hope that both would be positive towards the report and grateful to the Group’s members. For Catholics, the best option is clearly the ‘Swiss cheese’ — a separate diocesan structure, which to an extent would formalise what currently exists under the provisions of Resolution C. If I were entirely in that camp, that is the approach I would advocate.

The real challenge, however is to what I will call ‘J6 Evangelicals’ — those of us who believe the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress expressed the proper mind of Anglican evangelicalism in the resolution of that designation:

We repent of our failure to give women their rightful place as partners in ministry with men. Leadership in the church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male. (The Nottingham Statement, London, CPAS 1977, J6)

As the Group implicitly recognizes, this category may be much wider than the membership of Reform. However, it seems to me essential that, having take part in the consultation process (see Annex F for a list of participants), Reform now engages with this report and decides quickly its preferred option. The right choice, in my view, would once again be the Swiss cheese.

Indeed, that is the option I would also urge on WATCH and their allies. That may be surprising, not least to them, but if they are not to be granted the whole cake (which, as the report recognizes, will renege on earlier promises, raise legal questions and once again result in ejections from the Church of England) it is the choice least like the present confused situation. Put another way, it is the closest to a clean break that doesn’t involve an actual break.

There will be those who will argue against the ‘new dioceses’ answer on the grounds that the church must maintain geographical unity. They should be careful, however, not to use principle as a mask for ambition. Twice in my ministry, I have ministered on the edge of a diocese, which meant that we had almost nothing whatsoever to do with our neighbouring Anglican parishes. It made no difference to us or, as far as I am aware, to them. Boundaries must exist for the sake of administration, and the legalised ‘holes’ this will create in dioceses will be little different from the current practical holes created by churchmanship.

Failing that, however, the obvious next option is transferred oversight to a complementary bishop. This would be better than the other variations on that theme, as involving the greatest clarity and legal provision. Sadly, one must say that the track record of the last fifteen years means that a ‘code of practice’ arrangement on its own simply cannot be trusted.

The worst thing would be for Reform simply to stand aloof from this process of deciding on options, particularly since the ‘new diocese’ option offers the possibility of a radical re-engagement with episcopal structures. There is, however, one glaring problem! If the new diocese is set up on the basis of a blanket ‘objection to women bishops’ it would include both Evangelicals and Catholics, requiring mutual submission to the same bishops and entailing mutual support in ministry. The report recognizes the difficulty:

... Conservative Evangelicals have put it to us that it would be crucial for one or more bishops within the new dioceses to be Evangelical. Whether that would in fact be sufficient to make the new structures stable is not entirely clear. (63)

My ‘worst case scenario’ is that hostility towards Anglo-Catholics will allow Reform to adopt an indifference towards the new arrangements which is really a disguise for a dislike of bishops and the structures of authority, mutual accountability and cooperation which they represent. Given the choice between perpetuating the present, somewhat confused, arrangements in a new guise and the clarity and opportunity offered by a new diocese, J6 Evangelicals must choose the latter. After that, it may be up to them to decide how to work with those whose Anglicanism derives from a very different historical and theological tradition.

Clearly, work remains to be done, but the Bishop of Manchester’s Group has surely laid out the viable options. The opportunity is there to move forward, and to quote Lady MacBeth, ‘If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.’

Revd John P Richardson
29 April 2008

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    Boundaries must exist for the sake of administration

    Why? I accept that each local church must relate to a particular higher level entity. But I see no reason why this must necessarily be based on any geographical arrangement. Many other denominations manage perfectly well without geographical boundaries. See my comments on the geographical implications of the Manchester report.

    One problem with the Swiss cheese model is that it formalises geographical holes where ordained women's ministry is not allowed.

    Better, I would think, to allow the "hole" churches to do their own thing, unconstrained by parish boundaries, but also allow the neighbouring churches to fill the holes with their own ministry. The result is not a geographical patchwork of dioceses but proper overlapping dioceses.

  2. So more of a marble cake?

    Darren Moore