Thursday, 15 May 2008

"What do women want?" I'm not sure. "When do they want it?" Now! (Maybe.)

NB: Some of the paragraph numbering referred to in the Manchester Report may be wrong. This is due to the way my software handled the files. If anyone has the right numbers, please let me know!

The news that something like half the women clergy serving in the Church of England have signed a letter which admits the possibility of postponing indefinitely the introduction of women bishops has me scratching my head in puzzlement over what exactly is intended.

My first reaction was to ask whether the letter is saying that further division in the Body of Christ would be so harmful that for the sake of the gospel it should not be risked, or simply that if they can’t have the whole ecclesiological cake the signatories would rather not have any.

Certainly the letter rejects any provision for opponents of women bishops which is enshrined in legislation, on the basis that this would undermine the unity and mission of the Church:

The price of legal “safeguards” for those opposed is simply too high, diminishing not just the women concerned, but the catholicity, integrity and mission of the episcopate and of the Church as a whole.”

However, at the same time the letter makes clear that there is nothing about being opposed to women’s ordination which ought to exclude one from the Church. Indeed, the signatories have committed themselves to incorporating such opponents into the life of the Church under women bishops:

... many of us have much experience of building trustful relationships with those unable to accept the priestly ministry of women. In the Anglican Communion overseas, women take this experience into the episcopate, which leads them to invite other bishops into their Dioceses or Episcopal areas to ordain, confirm and take other services when required. Bishops should be trusted to act wisely and behave with dignity, and all bishops should work within clear expectations and codes of practice. (Emphasis added)

In short, whilst rejecting any provisions which involve legislation, the letter accepts the notion of voluntary, but “clear ... codes of practice”. Thus this would not, as many seem to assume, be quite the same as ‘Option 1’ of the four options put forward in the Manchester Report, as paragraph 24 of that document makes clear. This envisages that under ‘single clause’ legislation,

There might, to the extent that general law permitted, still be a willingness to respect the wishes of those who, on grounds of conviction, wished to continue to receive the priestly and episcopal ministry of men (and those ordained by men). But this would be a matter of informal discussion and agreement, not the result of rights created in Church legislation. (Emphasis added)

True, there would be no legislation, but there would, according to the letter, be much more than a ‘might’ about respecting opposition to women bishops. Rather than the Manchester Report’s tentative “informal discussion and agreement” , the letter speaks of the recognition of rights in advance and guarantees their practical pastoral expression, up to and including the involvement of other (male) bishops, provided the codes of practice involved were not the subject of legislation. Certainly nothing is envisaged which might run the risk, noted in the Manchester Report, of contradicting resolution III. 2 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which asserted “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.”

The possibility of a voluntary (“non statutory”) code is mentioned in paragraph 36 of the Manchester Report. However, paragraph 39 points out why the Report itself did not make much of this:

A code can be something that is voluntarily entered in to by a group of people who commit, thereby, to observe its provisions. In that case there may be no formal sanction against non-compliance. Increasingly, however, both in secular and ecclesiastical legislation it has become common practice for legislation to mandate the making of a code. Thus for example the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 and the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007 both contain provision for the making of codes, which are subject to the approval of the General Synod, and require those concerned to “have regard” to those codes. Increasingly, the secular courts have taken the view that where bodies are required to have regard to the provisions of statutory codes of practice and fail to do so, their action may be invalidated. (Emphasis added)

The Report goes on to recognize that voluntary codes “do not create directly enforceable, legally binding obligations in the same way as a Measure, regulation or rule made under it”. Nevertheless, it clearly regards this approach as being legally fraught, and therefore opts for proposals whereby a code would be legally recognized from the outset, given that the courts may well deem this to be the case anyway.

Meanwhile, the letter itself recognizes that legal safeguards already exist to back up the application of a code of practice:

... we believe the existing disciplinary procedures are enough for women or men to be brought to account if they behave inappropriately. (Emphasis added)

However, it appeals to Christian good will, rather than legislation, as the final basis on which the Church should proceed in making provision for opponents, as well as supporters, of women bishops:

As the broken body of Christ on earth, the Church’s internal relationships should rest on trust, forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation, rather than on protection and an over-anxious reliance on the letter of the law.

What at first blush, then, seems to be a demand for the whole cake and for a recognition of only one valid theological position is actually a much more modest proposal: that opponents of women’s ordination should continue to find a place in the Church of England, with provision based on a clear code of practice, provided this is not to be the subject of legislation by the Church.

That, at least, is what the letter seems to be saying. Whether that is quite what was intended, either by those who wrote or those who signed it, I am still unsure. To return to an earlier point, the letter’s stated opposition to legislated provision is that it would diminish “the catholicity, integrity and mission of the episcopate and of the Church as a whole.” Yet the letter accepts that non-legislative provision could be made, up to and including bringing in other bishops where the ministry of a woman bishop would not be acceptable. On the face of it, then, this would appear to suggest that the problem is essentially legislation plus, as the letter says, the “language of ‘protection’ and ‘safeguard’” which, it is felt, is “offensive to women”.

Yet this last suggestion misses the point that the language is not directed (necessarily, at least) against women so much as in favour of a view of ministry, gender relationships and the Church as a community. Thus we are left with the question of why legislation must be rejected in toto, and yet the making of provision for those opposed to women bishops via a voluntary code is no great threat to the “the catholicity, integrity and mission of the episcopate and of the Church”. The strength of this position is not entirely self-evident, given that a voluntary code of practice would probably, as the Manchester Report notes, turn out to be legally binding in the event of any challenge.

Thus we are back to questions already posed by the Manchester Report in language which significantly echoes that of the letter, but which receive implicitly a different answer in the Report itself:

37. In general it is one of the less attractive features of the Church of England that it has, over the decades tended to over-legislate and over-prescribe - partly as a reflection of the complexity of its structures and partly because of a deficit of trust. It might be thought that the affairs of Churches and other Christian communities should be less hedged about by elaborate legal safeguards than those of organisations not committed to the precepts of Jesus Christ.

38. Nevertheless, even Christian communities need their rule books. There is, therefore, a judgment to be reached about the extent to which some arrangements which do not necessarily require legislative expression should, nevertheless, be given legislative form in order to provide reassurance and predictability.

The letter proposes answering these questions one way. The signatories may, however, have to accept that they need to be answered in another.

Revd John P Richardson
15 May 2008

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. I now see another reason to support the women's proposal: the principle that I hold to that the church should not be tied unnecessarily to the state. Any other church, indeed any other non-governmental body, can make its own rules (not just voluntary codes, but rules enforceable with disciplinary measures) on its leadership and authority structures, without the need for legislation. Why can't the Church of England? Most such bodies stick to their own rules, and ordinary members trust the leaders to uphold them. Why not in the C of E? And where such rules are broken there is always the possibility of appealing to secular courts, although hopefully given the church's own strong legal system that would very rarely be necessary.

    So why the instinct of trying to get rules enshrined in parliamentary legislation? Is it that some people are trying to hold on as tight as they can to any vestiges of establishment? I would expect and hope that Parliament would refuse to enact any such measure, beyond the bare minimum to make women bishops legal, and tell the church to decide and enforce its own rules on exactly how this change is put into practice. I suspect this would also make the WATCH women happy. Who would object to it, and how would they plan to get their alternatives through Parliament?

  2. Peter, the questions you raise are largely addressed by the Manchester Report itself.

    The reality is that the courts will in effect make any code of practice mandatory. Manchester explains why and gives examples where this is already affecting CofE practice.

    Thus the posited 'voluntary' Code will quickly become effectively a legislated Code, which is one reason why Manchester went straight for that option and did not consider the 'purely voluntary' option any further.

    The 700 letter is really asking for Manchester Option 2a without legislation. Manchester makes it clear that the 'with legislation' version of 2a is a safer bet in terms of clarity and legal status.

    What is important is that the 700 letter does not, as most people seem to assume, demand Manchester Option 1. On the contrary, what it proposes clearly excludes that Option, although as I've said, I wonder how many people, including signatories, realize that.