Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Was there a 'deliberate oversight' in the proposed Measure on women bishops?

You have to feel sorry for Miranda Threflfall-Holmes, who recently fell victim to the phenomenon of ‘post haste’ — putting something up on the internet in a fit of high dudgeon and then wishing you hadn’t.
In her case, it was in response to the amendments made by the House of Bishops to the proposed legislation to introduce women bishops. As has now been widely reported, her article titled ‘The Battered Bride of Christ’ questioned why women should stay in what she described as “this abusive institution”.
“Do we stay, hoping it will get better?” she asked, “Do we stay, because we feel called by God to be in this marriage? Do we stay, thinking we can continue to try to change it from the inside? Or do we flee to the nearest refuge ... leaving home, family, community, and our dreams behind?”
Now before commenting on the actual amendments, I can’t resist oberving that what Threflfall-Holmes now contemplates is what many have for some time been suggesting — indeed hoping — people like myself might do.
I cannot, however, believe Threlfall-Holmes was being serious when she wrote this. Otherwise one might wonder why that option was not taken in 1993, when the Church of England decided, as it continues to maintain, that women priests were introduced via a ‘process of reception’, not a final decision one way or the other.
If a ‘pure’ denomination is what you want, then the door is still open. Those of us who have stayed, or joined, since 1993, however, knew what we were letting ourselves in for. On the one hand, we all accept that women priests are truly ‘ordained’, in the sense of Article XXIII, that they are lawfully called and sent to preach and to administer the sacraments. On the other hand, we do not all accept that this is either technically possible (in the case of some catholics) or proper (in the case of some evangelicals).
It’s messy. Indeed it is almost incoherent. But we’ve managed to cope.
So what about the amendments themselves? In my view, they both address positively some of the anxieties of those who cannot accept women bishops, and therefore they ought actually to be welcomed by their supporters, insofar as they remove at least some of the reasons for saying ‘no’.
Thus the clarification regarding ‘delegation’ makes it clear that whilst the diocesan bishop divests him or herself of some functions by ‘delegation’ as an instrument, the alternative bishop is not ‘a delegate’.
In the run-up to the House of Bishops’ meeting, some of us had been exploring an alternative, based on the provision in the 1993 Act of Synod that an Archbishop could ordain, license and institute women clergy in another bishop’s diocese without needing his actual permission (it was only necessary that the bishop did not object). And in fact our suggestion had been discussed at quite a high level. We had thought that it had run into the sand, but the clarified understanding of ‘delegation’ is very close to what we were suggesting. So that is a plus in terms of removing a problem.
The other amendment deals with an otherwise-considerable anomaly. The wording of the legislation only specifies that an alternative bishop must be male. Yet the legislation also requires that where a diocesan bishop will not ordain women to the office of priest, the diocesan scheme put in place has to make provision both for the ordination of female candidates and for the support of the ministry of clergy who are women and their pastoral care (5 a,b).
Now it would be quite impossible (obviously) for women to be ordained by a bishop who did not share their theological position on women’s ordination. And whilst, technically, it is quite possible for a bishop who does not agree with women’s ordination nevertheless to provide them himself with sympathetic pastoral care, clause 5.b seems to suggest they should be shown a bit more sympathy than simply that.
The principle of equity under the law, however, surely suggests that the concern shown to women clergy ought also to be extended to those who have reservations about women bishops. In other words, it is necessary that those ministering to them episcopally (and, incidentally, those appointed as clergy to their parishes) should be in sympathy with their ideas at this point.
Indeed, that would seem glaringly obvious. Otherwise it would be enough to say to petitioners under the Measure, you have a male bishop. Indeed, bearing in mind that all dioceses must make such a scheme whatever the gender of the bishop, it would be unnecessary to make any actual provision if the diocesan bishop were himself male.
So from the point of view of opponents, this amendment is simply making explicit a principle which ought really to have been in the legislation (not, as is proposed, the Code of Practice, which has an increasingly Herculean task of holding up the weight being placed on it).
However, it is here that alarm bells are set ringing. In her more-moderate blogpost on the subject of the amendments, Threlfall-Holmes nevertheless objects to the obvious consequences of this:
They [the Anglican hierarchy] will even try (according to the archbishops’ notes to their press release) to make sure that they can keep a supply of special bishops on hand for ever to make sure this discrimination is fostered.
Now hold on a moment! Does that not mean that she was hoping — indeed expecting — that such a supply would not be forthcoming? What she has written suggested that is indeed the case:
... even the [1993 Episcopal Ministry] Act of Synod never said that you could choose your own alternative bishop based on whether they agreed with you. If you felt you needed a male priest or bishop, that would be respected. That is what the unamended legislation we had until this week said too.
So it would seem that Threlfall-Holmes’ interpretation of the proposed Measure was exactly what many of us (including, now, the House of Bishops) believed to be a glaring anomaly — that if you didn’t want a woman you could have a man, but that was all. Even if he disagreed with your views. Even if he taught against them and sought to change them, that would be deemed irrelevant.
One is left, therefore, with the sneaking suspicion that the ommission regarding the views of alternative bishops and appointed clergy was, at least on the part of some, a deliberate oversight — that the hope was that it would slip through unnoticed and that thereafter the ‘letter of the law’ would have been applied, rather than the spirit of 1993 when the Church seemed genuinely keen to cater for both views.
I may be wrong. But when I read of complaints to the effect that the bishops have somehow spoiled the party and that supporters of women bishops are now considering voting against the legislation, I wonder if this is not paranoia but realism.
Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend:


  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for this post and thanks for all the work you and others have been doing behind the scenes on the legislation. Similar thoughts concerning the reaction of WATCH to the amendments had crossed my mind. It has concerned me for a while that the 'male bishop' issue hasn't been more prominent in the debate and so I took heart from Archbishop Rowan's remarks to Synod in February and the three principles agreed by the House of Bishops in their introduction to the draft code of practice.

    Apart from the actual improvement to the legislation brought about by these amendments perhaps they bring a new clarity/honesty to the debate? It seems that one approach being considered by some is to get the amendments withdrawn through adjourning the debate in Synod and returning the draft back to the Bishops. I've no idea how likely such an outcome is but were it to happen wouldn't it make for an instructive debate in General Synod? One wonders how many members of GS had been under similar misapprehensions and how the numbers might stack up if it became clear that the legislation really would end anything like the accommodation of diverse views allowed by the Act of Synod? I suspect it would test the depth and width of the pro camp in a way that they have avoided so far.

    best wishes,

    Matt (Kettering)

  2. There is a bit flippy floppy logic there. "Traditionalists" shouldn't be able to choose their Bishop... but we can't have any Traditionalist bishops (see WATCH reaction to new bishop of Chichester).

    One does have to ask the question; if the C of E is so oppressive then why not leave, start a new denomination and show us how it's done? The threats seem to lack a bit of sincerity.

    Of course, when you say, "we all knew what we were letting ourselves in for", we didn't. Goal posts have been moved.

    Having said that I am leaving the denomination (although not solely over this issue). But I can't imagine a revisionist ever leaving for a more 'progressive' option. Just hot air.

    Darren Moore

    1. "One does have to ask the question; if the C of E is so oppressive then why not leave, start a new denomination and show us how it's done? The threats seem to lack a bit of sincerity."

      Absolutely. Independent Bible based churches with an Anglican flavour have been started quite successfully - look at Christchurch Durham, or Dundonald and others in South West London.

      And there are plenty of Bible based churches without an Anglican flavour that would be satisfactory to many conservative evangelicals.

      Conservative evangelicals fight the wrong battles in the C of E. They should concentrate on devising ways of stripping power from bishops and transferring it to individual churches and their PCCs - say it is in the name of democracy. Within a generation, liberal Anglicanism would be bust and dead.

      Well done for getting out. I did

  3. John,
    I read your post with interest. I am not part of the CofE but I follow with interest the various conflagrations that the church is going through. It upsets me to see how the church tears itself apart over what to some may seem trivial issues. I know that doctrinal issues are in fact extremely important as if error creeps in then the spirit can move out.
    The ultimate issue is unity, not at any price, but unity in the love of Christ. We are told to be content wherein we find ourselves and if personal ambition brings about discord then the message of the Holy Spirit is clearly not being listened to. It is surely better to abandon or at least defer personal ambitions in favour of allowing the church to do its job of reaching the lost and caring for the flock.

  4. This amendment doesn't matter. It won't be enforced. It can be written into the law, but it will only require the bishop to justify any decision he wants to make. That standard will not be difficult to achieve. In any case, the condition would be removed at the first opportunity. Even if it would enforced, that window will remain open for a very short period of time. These amendments offer only the illusion of protection.

    Opponents of WO are being offered two choices: Submit or leave. Those have always been the choices. The ultimate test of authority is being able to compel those who reject that authority. That is the one non-negotiable position of the other side. They demand as a condition for remaining that opponents submit in order to prove the authority of women bishops. Opponents can believe privately whatever they like, but they cannot act on those beliefs. That is the only accommodation that is in fact being offered.