Women as bishops: the House of Commons debate

On Wednesday 12 December the House of Commons debated the question of women bishops in the Church of England and the recent vote in General Synod. What follows merely picks out some of the more significant contributions rather than attempting to summarise the entire debate; but, overall, the mood was very much one of regret at the outcome of the Synod vote.

Introducing the debate, Ben Bradshaw began by reminding everyone that those who felt that Parliament should not be discussing the matter at all needed to remember that Church of England legislation had to be approved by Parliament. Moreover, what had been forgotten in the debate since the Synod vote was that Parliament might have rejected the Measure.

More than 20 years ago Parliament had acted as a brake on progress over the ordination of women to the priesthood. In the intervening two decades, however, there had been a huge change in attitudes in both Houses to gender equality in general and on the role of women in the Church in particular; and his guess was that if and when a resurrected Women Bishops Measure came before the Commons the main danger for it was not that it would contain insufficient safeguards for its opponents but that it would contain too many and be deemed inconsistent with general views on equality.

While the Church should make every reasonable effort to accommodate opposed views, but the feeling of the overwhelming majority, both of Synod and of the Church of England, was that concessions had gone far enough. The composition of Synod was not due to change until 2015, so unless some of those who voted “no” could be persuaded to change their minds it was doubtful whether a revised Measure could be agreed before 2015 – and there was no guarantee that the composition of Synod would be any different after 2015. He was not filled with confidence that conservative evangelical opponents of the Measure, in particular, would be persuadable. Therefore:

“I say to the bishops that there comes a time in any organisation, whether it be a political party or a Church, when it is no longer sustainable or possible to move at the pace of the slowest, which in this case means not moving at all. The overwhelming majority of Anglicans do not want more delay”.

He had been struck by the total unanimity from MPs and peers that the vote had been a disaster for the Church, that the matter had to be resolved quickly and that, if it was not, Parliament would act. He ended by quoting the reaction of William Fittall, Secretary-General of Synod, that:

“Unless the Church of England can show very quickly it’s capable of sorting itself out, we shall be into a major constitutional crisis in Church-State relations, the outcome of which cannot be predicted with any confidence”.

In a typically thoughtful contribution Paul Murphy, former Secretary of State for Wales and a Roman Catholic, said that the Church in Wales was a remarkable institution and paid tribute to the role of the Church of Ireland in the peace process there. The question of women as bishops was a matter for the Church, not for him; but

“logic tells me … that if we have women priests, we should have women bishops, and I think that the majority of practising Anglicans think so too. I understand, however, that there are people in the Church of England who do not share that view, and they need to be safeguarded somehow”.

He had never voted on any Church of England Measure, partly because he was a Roman Catholic and partly because he represented a Welsh constituency. The thrust of his remarks was to ask what Parliament should be doing about the situation – if anything: parliamentarians needed to take great care in relation to a Christian Church, even though that Church was established.

The establishment of the Church of England meant that there were bishops in the Upper House and that “certain things have to happen in the House of Commons”. However, many MPs were not Christians, let alone members of the Church of England; and he wondered whether it was right that they should take part in decisions on what a Christian Church should do. He worried about that but believed that common sense would prevail at the end of the day. The Church itself should make the decision; but he believed that the debate would have some value in that it might prod the Church into reaching a speedy conclusion. As to the more general question of the status of the Church, he thought on balance that it should remain established but that the settlement of establishment might have to be changed.

Frank Field had two main points to put forward about the remaking of the decision. He did not favour, at that stage, interfering with the Synod’s processes and changing the rules of the game by changing the canons or the legislation to make it inevitable that there would be women bishops.

He hoped that other diocesan synods would follow the lead of the Diocese of Bristol and table motions of no confidence in the current General Synod. Presumably at some stage sufficient dioceses would have done so to force a dissolution of Synod and new elections.  Synod should get on and start reforming itself; but that had to come through the parishes and the dioceses. At some stage, the dioceses would force the hand of Synod.

As to Parliament, he hoped that Members would support his Bill to withdraw the privilege given to the Church 37 years ago to discriminate against women and his Bill presented earlier in the day “to make provision for filling vacancies among Lords Spiritual sitting and voting as Lords of Parliament” – that no more writs could be issued to allow male bishops to take vacancies in the House of Lords and that, instead, the power to issue such a writ would go to the Archbishop, who would choose from senior women deans to fill vacancies in the House of Lords.

As one of the minority, Geoffrey Cox said that many in the Church shared his opinion. The decision to ordain women to the priesthood was irreversible “and the march of relentless logic will probably mean there should also be women bishops”. However, the minority included many who simply could not bring themselves to dismiss the tradition of 2,000 years and the convictions of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the last thing the minority wanted was for the Church to be riven by the issue and he asked for Christian compassion for the minority.

The rules by which the decision of the Synod was reached were created for a reason: to protect minority opinions. The rules were put in place by the Church so that decisions of great magnitude and gravity should be taken only with the overwhelming support of the Church:

“… just because it failed to reach that threshold and the bar was not passed according to that majority, we should not complain. We should not say to the Church, ‘You have failed to do your duty’. The constitutional threshold was there for a reason: to ensure that when this change or any similar change on so fundamental a matter was introduced, it carried the overwhelming weight of the Church”.

It was inevitable that there would be women bishops; but the Church had to be allowed to make that decision on its own without bullying or pressure.

“I repeat: it is no use complaining because a constitutional majority threshold was not reached. The liberals in the House and those in the House who believe in constitutionalism have no right to point the finger at the Church and say that somehow its systems are defective. That constitutional majority was not reached. It was set in place for good reason, to ensure that the whole Church, or as much of it as possible, was taken with the decision”.

Helen Grant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)  said that the Government strongly believed that the time was right to enable the appointment of women bishops. There was nothing in discrimination law that would prevent their appointment should the Synod vote to do so. The Church of England, just like any other religious organisation, was not exempt from having to comply with the Equality Act 2010; however, certain exceptions existed within the 2010 Act to recognise the specific nature of religious organisations and their unique role within society: notably the exemption of religious organisations from certain parts of the Act’s employment provisions where “the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion”.

The exception allowed Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews, for example, to appoint only men as priests or rabbis; and to remove that exception with the intention of forcing the appointment of women bishops would potentially have effects going far beyond the Church of England alone. And in any case, the current law enabled women bishops to be appointed; that was not the stumbling-block .

The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty meant that, in theory, it would be open to Parliament to legislate on Church of England matters without the involvement of the General Synod, for instance by amending canon law to require the appointment of women bishops. However, the Government would not want to disturb the balance between Church and State by making impulsive changes. The Government would warmly welcome the appointment of women as bishops but respected the independence of religious organisations. Decisions about internal structure were ultimately matters for the Church of England itself to decide.

Sir Tony Baldry, Second Church Estates Commissioner, began from the position that the Church of England is a national Church; and because it is a Church for the whole nation [of England] it needs to reflect the values of the whole nation. He suggested that everyone within the Church of England recognised that until the issue of women bishops was resolved it would not be able fully to fulfil its role as a national Church.

He reported the deliberations of the House of Bishops earlier in the week as follows:

  • it expressed gratitude and appreciation for the ministry of ordained women in the Church of England;
  • it acknowledged the profound and widespread anger, grief and disappointment felt by so many in the Church of England and beyond;
  • it agreed that the current situation was unsustainable for everyone, whatever their convictions;
  • it expressed its continuing commitment to enabling women to be consecrated as bishops; and
  • it stated its intention of bringing forward fresh proposals to General Synod at its next meeting in July 2013.

The House of Bishops had also agreed to set up a working group drawn from all three Houses of Synod whose membership, to be determined by the Archbishops, would be announced before Christmas. The intention was that the group should arrange facilitated discussions with a wide range of people of a variety of views in the week beginning 4 February 2013 when General Synod was due to meet. The House of Bishops would have an additional meeting in February, immediately after those discussions, and expected to settle at its May meeting the elements of a new legislative package to come to Synod in July.

In addition, he made various points:

  • that the issue of protections had become so complicated that “nobody was quite sure who was being protected, against what and by whom” and that much greater simplicity would be required;
  • that it was important, as the House of Bishops made plain, that there needed to be a clear embodiment of the principle articulated in the 1998 Lambeth Conference that both those who dissent from and those who assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate are loyal Anglicans: “No-one is saying that one form of Anglicanism is better than another”;
  • that “we cannot square the circle by creating second-class women bishops” because, other considerations apart, Parliament would not agree to such a Measure.

Finally:

“Some voices this evening, quite understandably, have suggested that if the Church of England does not act, Parliament might need to. It is my earnest prayer that over the coming months the Church of England can and will demonstrate that it can resolve this issue itself”.

Comment: 

Justin Lewis-Anthony, aka The 3 Minute Theologian, commented in response to my earlier post on Church and State – an idiot’s guide that his reaction to last Wednesday’s debate was that “I have seldom read such an ill-informed collection of half-remembered Arthur Mee / Whig interpretation of historical infelicities in my life”.

So no surprise there, then: a decent working knowledge of modern church history, ecclesiology and constitutional law tends not to be the desideratum uppermost in the minds of committees selecting parliamentary candidates. But if you are going to have ultimate legislative responsibility for an established Church you can’t escape these things entirely, as some of the more thoughtful contributions demonstrated.

2 thoughts on “Women as bishops: the House of Commons debate

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