Women Bishops: What Went Wrong?
On the 20th November the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting at Church House Westminster, discussed legislation (a ‘Measure’) to introduce women bishops.
The Measure had already been approved by forty-two of the country’s forty-four dioceses and was clearly favoured by the majority of the General Synod. Late that afternoon, however, by a margin of five votes, the Measure was defeated.
How did this happen, and what went wrong?
The first thing to realize is that when Anglican synods vote on major legislation, they do so by ‘houses’ — the bishops, clergy and laity each having their own House — and the legislation has to gain majorities in each of the three. Furthermore, when the legislation is really serious a two-thirds majority is also required.
In this particular case, the Houses of Bishops and Clergy each supported the legislation (overwhelmingly in the case of the bishops), but it failed in the House of Laity.
At this point, some people are crying ‘Foul!’ But the Church put these extra requirements in place for a reason. In matters of faith, it was felt, the maintenance of truth and unity would be very important. In certain circumstances, therefore, a ‘fifty-percent-plus-one’ margin was felt not to be enough either to affirm that a decision was right or that sufficient people supported it.
Some of the rancour that is being expressed about the required majority therefore shows a misunderstanding of how the Church of England chooses to do things, and why.
As to the acceptance of the Measure amongst the dioceses, but its rejection in General Synod, this is again the way the Church chooses to operate. Measures (which actually go on for consideration by Parliament) have to be referred to dioceses for discussion and approval. But it is the General Synod that has the final word.
One reason for this is that the General Synod is, frankly, considered to be better-equipped theologically. And certainly the one time I attended there were clearly a lot of very bright and experienced people there.
But why, when so many seemed in favour, did the legislation finally fail? There are two schools of thought on this. One has it that the ‘Traditionalists’ refused to compromise. The other, that the compromises offered to Traditionalists were simply inadequate.
So which is to be believed? An important point to bear in mind is that the General Synod decided some years ago to accept the appointment of women bishops in principle. The question since then has not been whether but how to introduce this, given that some people (for a variety of reasons) dissented from this move. Both those in favour and those against, however, were spread out along a spectrum of ‘solutions’.
At one end were those Traditionalists who wanted a ‘Third Province’ — virtually a separate branch of the Church of England. At the other end were those who advocated a so-called ‘single clause’ Measure — one that introduced women bishops with no provision for dissenters.
Over the next few years, the options on offer to Traditionalists were gradually whittled down, whereas the ‘single clause’ approach was still being considered almost until the last minute. Nevertheless, even in 2008, when the first draft of the proposed Measure was produced, Traditionalists were being offered their own bishops who would perform a whole range of functions, including overseeing appointments in parishes and even sponsoring candidates for ordination. Had that remained on offer, there is little doubt the legislation would eventually have been accepted by them.
It soon became clear, however, such these proposals would be fiercely resisted by many supporters of women bishops, who made up the majority of the General Synod. A second draft of the Measure therefore removed almost all of the provisions in the first. In their place was simply the delegation to an alternative bishop of “the celebration of the sacraments and other divine service” and “the provision of pastoral care to the clergy and parishioners”.
The difficulty remained, though, that there might be just enough Traditionalists in the House of Laity to reject this new proposal as failing to give ‘proper provision’. Various attempts were therefore made to head off this prospect, but all were again opposed as offering too much, including a suggestion by the two Archbishops in July 2010, which was defeated on a ‘vote by houses’ in the House of Clergy. Finally, in July this year, the House of Bishops (as it is allowed to do) introduced the now-notorious Clause 5(1)c.
This stated that a Code of Practice (yet to be written) would give guidance as to “the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request under section 3 [of the Measure]” (emphasis added).
At this point, however, supporters of women bishops in the Synod hit the roof, making it quite clear that they would vote down the Measure if this Clause remained in. Thus instead of the legislation being voted on in July, it was referred back to the House of Bishops for ‘reconsideration’ of the offending Clause.
Hence what came before the Synod in November was different again. Clause 5(1)c was still there, but now with words suggested by a supporter of women bishops, the Revd Janet Appleby, stating that the Code of Practice would give guidance as to “the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which parochial church councils issue Letters of Request under section 3” (emphasis added).
Clearly this was very different from the previous version (and a very long way from a Third Province). Yet even Janet Appleby herself said that she found this suggestion “personally painful and feared this was a compromise too far.”
In the event, however, it turned out to be a compromise not quite far enough. When it came to the vote, the Measure was narrowly defeated. Yet the likelihood is that had the original Clause 5(1)c been allowed to stand, the Measure would either have passed or have been voted down only by the supporters of women bishops.
Ironically, therefore, the Measure was arguably lost by its supporters rather than defeated by its opponents — who have been in a minority all the way through.
So where do we go from here? At the moment the recriminations are flying thick and fast. And the talk is of ‘years’ before the issue is resolved. Yet we have a new Archbishop in waiting and he was a businessman before he became a member of the clergy. It would be far better if he could be allowed to find a solution in the next eighteen months, and with enough willingness to work together, this might be achievable.
We in the Church of England have made a terrible mess of things, and our first response should be repentance. But after that, we need to aim at reconciliation and to avoid recrimination. The Church of England may never quite be the same again, but perhaps that is a good thing, and in its way, an answer to the many prayers that have been prayed about this issue in past weeks.
Revd John Richardson
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