Friday, 21 October 2011

Women Bishops Legislation: Unjust and ill-conceived?

Below is the text of a letter published in this week's Church of England Newspaper, replying to a correspondent who commented on a previous letter I wrote regarding this piece (*.pdf file) from a member of the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod.

In it I have made some points which are, I think, relevant to the current debate.


I am sorry not to have been able to reply earlier to April Alexander’s comments two weeks ago regarding my previous letter in which I was responding to the claims by a leading member of the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod that ‘no promises have been broken’ regarding the ordination of women and, as a corollary, that the proposed legislation regarding women bishops will actually be better than what is currently in place because it is stronger.
My essential point was that no one who accepts these arguments can really have understood the position of those against whom they are arrayed. To have someone who has campaigned against the Act of Synod, which a former Archbishop told a member of parliament was intended to be permanent, now tell me that ‘no promises have been broken’ takes the biscuit, to put it mildly. To be told that the new proposals are a better version of what the present legislation actually intends and provides is simply untrue.
One of the difficulties is that we have now gone past the stage of listening and the mood is one of simply wanting to ‘get it over’. My bet would be that very few people voting in diocesan synods have much idea of what the Act of Synod said or how it has worked, and not much better idea of what the new legislation will mean and why it is unacceptable. But neither, in all honest, do they much care.
A key point of contention, for example, is that according to proponents of the new legislation the authority of a diocesan bishop must be maintained absolutely. To breach this, we are told, would be to create a new kind of bishop. Yet what seems to be forgotten is that the 1993 Act of Synod allowed either Archbishop to ordain, license and institute female clergy in another diocese not by ‘delegated’ authority but “in pursuance of his metropolitical jurisdiction”(sections 11.1,2). The only proviso was that the bishop of the diocese did not object and had not made a declaration preventing this under section 2 of the Measure.
Why would it be so impossible to have such a similar provision carried over into the new legislation for those who cannot accept women bishops? If it was not in principle a breach of episcopal authority then, why would it be now?
Not only do the arguments about the new legislation seem to be flawed and ad hoc, the legislation is manifestly uneven and ill-conceived in what it requires from church members.
Under the proposals, for example, a PCC in a multi-parish benefice will be able to overturn existing Resolutions A and B taken by another PCC in the same benefice (see Schedule 1). To make matters worse, the proposed legislation does not cover what happens in multi-parish benefices where opinion continues to be divided after the introduction of the new legislation. What if one parish does want a woman priest and the other does not? In answer to a question on this, I was told, "It will presumably be covered in the Code of Practice." But what kind of law favours one church member’s honoured convictions against another?
Or again, parishes who opt for a male bishop will have to review their decision every five years (section 3:13). But if we are genuinely still in a ‘period of reception’ (which as our own diocesan bishop in Chelmsford reminded us recently means admitting any of us may be wrong), should not parishes who have not so petitioned have to review their position every five years?
The proposed legislation will introduce two classes of Anglican — the central and the legally marginalized. That may be what the Synods want, but please do not tell me it is what I should cheerfully accept.
John Richardson

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