Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Women Bishops: What Went Wrong?

The article below is written to present things at a 'parish magazine' level. Feel free to use it.


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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  1. The comment about waiting "many years" that so many people are saying really bemuses me, because they were clearly not listening to the Archbishop of York when he said " cannot come up again in the life of this synod UNLESS it is brought to the presidents and the chairs of the houses of clergy and laity"! The issue is getting the right result that both "extremes" of the debate can agree to and then call on synod to vote for.

  2. Thanks for this analysis, John. Good to be able to find some facts amid all the regrettable comments/articles/mis-reporting.

    Rich Blayney, Gateshead

  3. Thank you, John for your unbiased analysis. It would seem to have made things a lot more easy for the 'single-Clause' to pass through the general synod next time -if, as you say, it was really the supporters of Women Bishops who enabled this debacle. So in fact, the dissenters could, in the long run, miss out on their objective. Women Bishops may be ordained under the same provision as their male colleagues. And that's what, seemingly, the C.of E. majority wants.

  4. Kiwianglo, you may well be right. I stand by my analysis of why the legislation failed - I do think it would have gone through had there been just a smidgen more 'give'. However, I would just mention the warning (given, I think, in the Manchester Report) that a single Clause church would actually be more narrow than Anglicanism in recent years.

  5. Something went wrong at the beginning of paragraph 14: "It soon became clear, however, such these proposals" - do you mean "that such", "that these", "that such proposals as these", or something else?



  6. A nagging thought got me to investigate what happened almost exactly 20 years ago, on November 11th 1992, when the original legislation to permit womens' ordination was passed. Details are hard to come by, but it appears that the margin of success was 'two votes'. I presume that means that it got the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity by that slim margin.
    This week, however, the vote came down to that same slim margin again, except that the vote went the other way. In twenty years, only three people on Synod appear to have changed their mind.
    So how is it, therefore, that this week was a disaster for the church. Democracy, in the rather strange form we practice it in the C of E, has prevailed, has it not?

  7. "Details are hard to come by, but it appears that the margin of success was 'two votes'. I presume that means that it got the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity by that slim margin."

    That's right Richard - and it got it on false pretences in at least two respects. One is the one I explained on a previous thread, namely that virtually everyone voting 'pro' actually voted AGAINST WOMEN BISHOPS as an integral part of the measure, out of sheer cynicism so as to get at least women priests through.

    The other is the assurances provided by none other than the new AoC George Carey, that voting for this wouldn't imply any movement along the 'gay agenda' in the church. An assurance which for almost a decade now has been shown to be worthless.

    It's interesting to consider that at the same time as making these empty noises, Dr Carey had actually threatened to resign if the measure had failed. So really, when he tried reassuring waverers, the first proper question they should have asked him was: "Excuse me, your Grace - what's your salary?"


  8. Does anybody actually know what the 'mind of the church' is on this issue? As I have often pointed out, the rather strange way we go about democracy in the C of E gives the ordinary church member no say at all in what happens in General Synod - we don't even get the equivalent of a General Election every five years to really express our feelings. This has allowed a determined minority to dominate General Synod in the 40 years of its existence, regardless of what anyone else might think.

    Finally, the worm has turned. As Susie Leafe pointed out on Newsnight last night, the 60/40 split in the House of Laity on women's ministry issues has been almost unchanged since 1975. It's marginal and always has been, and a 40% minority is one you can't ignore. (Unless, of course, it's a homosexual minority -in which case you can't ignore it however small it is).

    If anything comes out of this mess, I hope it will be more transparency, and a realisation that people can and will simply give up and walk away from the C of E, as they have done in large numbers in other provinces. A great number of people give a lot of money to the church to allow it to function, and they have the right to be heard.

  9. Yes Richard, and re. your final sentence, imagine if voting power in Synod was represented by amount given to the national church. Would opponents (including those large, rich conservative evangelical churches which liberals always mention with contempt) actually make a majority?


  10. Dan
    That's a wonderful thought, nearly as radical as giving everybody one vote. In General Synod, 200 clergy represent 8000 serving clergy, whereas 200 lay members represent 800,000 actual lay people. I call that under-representation - are clergy 100 times more qualified to vote than the rest of us?

    Another thought - if it ever came to a schism, the conservative evangelical faction would be much better able to cope on its own.