Next Wednesday I have to speak to our Deanery Synod in a debate about the draft Women Bishops Measure, and have been asked to oppose the motion. This is the gist of what I intend to say, and I would invite feedback and comment in advance.)
I’m sure you’ll agree it makes a change for me not to be talking to you about the growth of the church [I chair the Deanery Growth Task Group which makes regular presentations to the Synod].
However, I do believe that what I have to say this evening has to do with the health of the church.
Since 1993, the Church of England has been able to ordain women as priests and it is now proposed to consecrate women as bishops.
However, the legislation framed in 1993 was carefully designed to preserve the unity of the Church of England.
This was achieved through two instruments.
First, the Measure which passed through Parliament had two ‘Resolutions’ in an appendix, which allowed parishes to choose not have a woman as their incumbent, team vicar or priest in charge, or to pronounce Absolution or to celebrate Holy Communion.
The latter clauses were particularly framed out of concern for Anglo-Catholics committed to the doctrine that priesthood is essentially a male quality, and that the priest, as a representative of Christ, had to share his maleness.
The former was more important for evangelicals who believe this is more an issue to do with rôles within the congregation as the ‘household of God’.
However, there was a second instrument, not a parliamentary Measure, but an Act of Synod, which made special provisions regarding specifically episcopal ministry for those who opposed the ordination of women.
This Act of Synod is often treated as being one-sided, having regard only to the needs of traditionalists. But it also had something for those in favour of women’s ordination by providing that, even if the diocesan bishop were himself opposed to the ordination of women, with his permission, women could be ordained, licensed and instituted in his diocese by the Archbishop or by another bishop acting on his behalf.
Since 2000, I have often heard complaints about the untidiness — and worse — of the system of flying bishops (which was just one of the provisions of the Act of Synod).
But there was an equal untidiness (if we want to call it that) embodied in the Act of Synod (11:1-3) for those who supported women’s ordination, whereby ordination, licensing and institution — surely key elements of the bishops oversight — could be handed over to another bishop outside his diocese, where the diocesan bishop opposed women’s ordination
Let it be noted that the Flying Bishops have never had this much authority with regard to those who received their ministry.
The principle at work throughout the introduction of the ordination of women, however, was expressed in the Act of Synod, which said that
... the highest possible degree of communion should be maintained within each diocese; and
... the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected. (3.a.ii, iii)
And that is where the health of the Church of England comes to the forefront.
Authority in the Church of England is often said to be like a stool with three legs, namely Scripture, tradition and reason. But that is not quite a complete picture, for although the Church of England recognizes the important of reason and tradition, it gives priority to Scripture.
Article XX of the 39 Articles, states that “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written.”
Scripture, tradition and reason are not three separate ‘legs’ but three interacting sources of understanding. So we need reason and tradition to understand Scripture.
But once we have understood Scripture, the Articles state that the Church cannot then contradict Scripture, despite our traditions or our other ‘reasonable’ justifications.
In the present debate, there are those who believe that Scripture does allow the ordination and consecration of women as priests and bishops, and there are those who believe it does not.
The official position of the Church of England since 1993 has been that both are authentically Anglican — and this can be maintained insofar as we believe neither are deliberately and consciously acting contrary to Scripture.
However, whilst that continues to be the case — and it is still the case at present — the Church must organize its structure so that both those in favour of, and those opposed to, the ordination and consecration of women can function coherently within the same denominational body.
Now it may be that this is impossible. Baptists and Anglicans would find it difficult to operate in the same denomination because they have contradictory views of infant baptism. It is possible to be a Baptist layperson in the Church of England, but you can’t really be a Baptist ‘priest’, because your office requires you to carry out baptisms of infants.
Sometimes doctrinal differences require structural separation. And indeed, it has been said to me on more than one occasion that if I don’t like what is happening I ought to leave the Church of England.
In reply, I would make two observations. First, when I was ordained in the Church of England, women’s ordination was only just being considered. In fact in 1977, the National Evangelical Anglican Congress, meeting at Nottingham, passed a resolution which said,
Leadership in the Church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male. (The Nottingham Statement, J6)
That was my own position then and it continues to be my position now. And that is one reason why I feel under no obligation to go, despite the urging of others.
Furthermore, the Church of England maintained in 1993 and has continued to maintain since then, that the issue is not settled. The technical term for this is that we are ‘in a period of reception’ — which doesn’t mean ‘we are giving everyone time to get used to it’, but ‘we still discerning whether this is right or wrong’ (see the Act of Synod ‘Proposal’ 3:a.i).
And that brings me to my second observation, which is that although I may be mistaken, I genuinely think that the Church of England has got it wrong on this issue and that it has acted contrary to Scripture.
But if that is true — and officially the Church of England goes on saying it may be true — it is especially important to go on witnessing to what one believes to be true, for the sake of the Church.
And that is why I want to urge the Church to look again at this legislation and not to accept it in its current form.
You will have noticed that the Measure is quite long and complicated. The reason is that there are four long clauses (2,3,5 and 6), detailing the provisions for those who, like myself, continue to have difficulty with the ordination or consecration of women.
May I make the point, in passing, that by making this legal provision, a vote for this legislation is a vote to accept that the Church of England still may be wrong on this issue?
But it is a grudging and inadequate provision. For example, PCCs may request that only a male incumbent or priest in charge be appointed to a parish or benefice, but it is only a request, not a requirement (3.3, 6).
Nor can such a decision be made by a meeting attended by the existing priest in charge of a church (nor, indeed, their spouse or civil partner, 3.7). The PCC must now act alone and only once there is an actual or impending vacancy — and we know what an anxious time that is.
We also know — or at least I do — that Archdeacons are not above reminding parishes in this situation that passing any of the existing Resolutions will, of course, narrow the field of any possible future replacements.
It is when we come to the provision of episcopal oversight, however, that this legislation is wholly inadequate.
Here, again, it is only possible for a PCC to make a request “that episcopal ministry and pastoral care shall be provided by a male bishop” (3.1).
The response to that request will be governed by a ‘Code of Practice’ which has yet to be decided. However, it is up to the diocesan bishop to frame the scheme that will apply in his or her diocese.
Moreover, that scheme may make different provisions for different churches or even individuals (5.2). But then the scheme itself must be reviewed every five years, and meanwhile may be revoked or amended at any time (2.6).
A major problem with these proposals, however, is that episcopal ministry to parishes in these circumstances is not really ‘episcopal’ at all. The Measure defines it in terms of:
the celebration of the sacraments and other divine services ... (2.1.a)
the provision of pastoral care to the clergy and parishioners ... (2.1.b)
Now with the exception of some ‘divine services’ like confirmation, and the provision of pastoral care to the clergy (which could in any case come from a lay ‘spiritual director’), the other duties are those of the local priest, not a bishop.
Compare this with the Act of Synod, which in the case of dioceses where the bishop opposed women priests, allowed the Archbishop or his commissary to ordain, license and institute women priests in someone else’s diocese (11:1 — not forgetting that the Archbishop is himself a diocesan bishop in the Church of England.)
This is why the Church of England Evangelical Council, with the support of Forward in Faith, is sponsoring a ‘Following Motion’ which it is hoped will be discussed at General Synod, calling for oversight under the new Measure to be exercised with a bishop with ‘ordinary jurisdiction’ — the power to ordain, license and institute.
As pointed out before, that provision was never granted to the ‘Flying Bishops’, but it is there in the Act of Synod for supporters of women’s ordination.
To my mind, however, the biggest problem with the Measure is not legal but theological.
Under the Measure, these very limited episcopal functions — which I have said are not really ‘episcopal’ at all — will be delegated to another bishop in the diocese, or a different diocese, simply because he is male.
Strictly speaking (unless I have misunderstood the legislation), he does not himself have to be a bishop who holds the views on women’s ordination held by those to whom he will minister — the clergy and congregations (2:1).
To take this approach, however, is to drive a wedge between what a bishop believes and what a bishop does in terms of the exercise of his ministry. Yet if a parish or a priest requests episcopal ministry because of their beliefs in this area, it is not enough to say, “You can have bishop B although he doesn’t agree with a word you say, because he’s a man.”
If the Church of England is to continue to maintain that it has a place for both integrities at this point — which this legislation clearly presumes — then there must be provision that the beliefs involved are held by actual, living and ministering, bishops. Just being a ‘bloke’ is not enough!
Finally, and unfortunately, we have to remind ourselves just how things have been for the past eighteen years under the existing legislation, which shows why the provision needs to be strengthened, not weakened.
In the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, it is stated that,
There will be no discrimination against candidates either for ordination or for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views about the ordination of women to the priesthood. (1)
Actually, since 1993 there has been just one appointment of an Evangelical bishop opposed to the ordination of women (and that was to a suffragan post) and a handful of Anglo-Catholic appointments.
Indeed, the 2001 Perry Report on episcopal appointments, noted that of the 31 diocesan bishops appointed between 1993 and 2000, 27 ordained women and two were already diocesan bishops elsewhere. Only two new bishops did not ordain women, and these were both appointed before 1995 (2:28).
I would also refer to ‘Talent and Calling’, GS 1650, published in 2007, which looked at the appointments of suffragan bishops, cathedral deans, archdeacons and residentiary canons, which made this observation:
4.6.1 While the proportion of women on the Preferment List and among those holding senior appointments is lower than the proportion of full-time stipendiary clergy who are women, we are pleased to note that action is being taken to address this.
But then it added this:
4.6.2 The proportion of minority ethnic, conservative evangelical and traditional catholic candidates on the Preferment List and among those holding senior appointments would appear to be even lower.
In other words, the reality on the ground suggests that despite the Act of Synod, discrimination has taken place even in the period before the new legislation was proposed — and this may, of course, go some way towards explaining the passage of that legislation through the Church’s governing bodies.
I hope you will understand, therefore, why the feeling of traditionalists is so strong that a ‘Code of Practice’ — yet to published, leaving wide discretion to the diocesan bishop, without any guarantee of what will be put in place, subject to revocation at any time and review every five years — just will not do.
Personally, the more I have examined the small-print, the more I would like to see this Measure defeated. It is not that I could not live with women priests and bishops — I can, and so far have done since 1993.
But the Measure seems to be applying the biblical principle that ‘to those who have not, even what they have shall be taken away’, and this is a bad application.
I would ask you therefore to vote against the Measure.
However, if the Measure is to go through, the House of Bishops must do what the CEEC Following Motion requests, and make provision in the Measure itself for people and parishes to receive oversight from a bishop with ‘ordinary jurisdiction’ — just as the Act of Synod did for the supporters of women priests in 1993.
So I would ask you, whether you support the Measure or not, to vote for the CEEC Following Motion.
The CEEC Following Motion:
This [General] Synod,
1. desires that all faithful Anglicans remain and thrive together in the Church of England and therefore
2. calls upon the House of Bishops to bring forward amendments to the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure to ensure that those unable on theological grounds to accept the ministry of women bishops are able to receive oversight from a bishop with authority (i.e. ordinary jurisdiction) conferred by the Measure rather than by delegation from a Diocesan Bishop.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.