Women bishops – what you see and what you don’t

Another guest post from Will Adam, Editor of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal and Vicar of St Paul’s, Winchmore Hill.

The draft Measure, amending Canon and supporting documentation to be brought to the meeting of the General Synod in November were published on Friday 25 October. They were the result of a series of meetings of an enlarged Steering Committee which, unusually, included those who were not, in principle, supportive of the proposed changes. In the end two members abstained from voting to commend the proposals to General Synod but there was no dissenting report; and three of those who had voted against the legislation in November 2012 voted to bring these proposals forward.

So, what do we see?

  1. Essentially a single-clause Measure. The draft Measure contains a principal clause making it legal for the Synod to legislate by canon to enable women to be ordained as bishops and priests. There is a clause stating beyond doubt that the office of bishop is not a “public office” under the terms of the Equality Act 2010 and there are a number of consequential amendments to other legislation.
  2. The Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 is repealed and along with it Resolutions A and B.
  3. There is an amending Canon, which is complex but essentially tidies up the Canons of the Church of England to put those canons about the ordination and ministry of deacons, priests and bishops on the same footing for men and for women. The Canons of the Church of England will, however, now contain a new Canon C 29. This places a new duty on the House of Bishops to make Regulations (to be approved by a two-thirds majority of each House of General Synod) for “the resolution of disputes arising from the arrangements for which the House of Bishops’ declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests makes provision”. This assumes, therefore, that the House of Bishops will have made such a declaration.
  4. Annexed to the full report of the steering committee are:
    • a draft declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests that the House of Bishops could make; and
    • a set of draft regulations for a system for resolving disputes, introducing an “Independent Reviewer” – rather like an ombudsman.

How will it work in practice?

Once the legislation comes into force it will become possible for women to be considered for and appointed to diocesan and suffragan sees, including the sees of Canterbury and York. As at present, patrons and bishops will be able to present, institute and license women priests to benefices and other offices on the same basis as men. All clergy will be required, as now, to make the oath of canonical obedience to their bishop, whomever he or she is, on taking up office. On the strict legal level, therefore, the Church of England will have clearly made a decision that men and women equally may be ordained and minister as deacons, priests and bishops.

The House of Bishops, as noted above, is required by Canon to have made a “declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests” and to have set up a procedure for resolving disputes about its implementation.

The draft declaration seeks to ensure that each diocese has at least one bishop who will ordain women priests (most recently, and currently, the diocese of Chichester does not have such a bishop: all the others do). The Committee’s report expresses a hope that there should be a Conservative Evangelical bishop in the College of Bishops who shares the views on male headship held by some in that constituency.

The draft declaration sets down a process whereby the ministry of women priests and bishops may be declined. The only body competent to make such a request would be a PCC (cathedrals would not be able to decline the ministry of women priests or bishops). A PCC (and there is provision to make sure that it is a majority vote of the PCC and that the meeting is properly constituted) may pass a resolution requesting alternative episcopal and priestly ministry. The Bishop is then required to arrange such ministry. If there is a dispute as to whether and how that ministry is arranged the PCC will be able to ask for a review of arrangements by the newly created “Independent Reviewer”. This person will act rather like an ombudsman in the public sector: he or she will be empowered to investigate (and to initiate investigations on his or her own authority) and to recommend courses of action that are then sent to the parties concerned and published.

And what do we not see?

The report makes clear that there are different reasons that will prompt a PCC to request “arrangements”. Paragraph 22 of the draft declaration states that the House of Bishops “will provide guidance for bishops and parishes” to help bishops, patrons and PCCs hold conversations to “achieve an outcome that does not conflict with the nature of the conviction on this issue underlying the PCC’s resolution”.

It is not clear what form this guidance will take. There is an aspiration for consistent practice throughout the country (paras 16 and 27) but there is no mention of the scope or limits of such “theological conviction”.

To take some examples of issues that will need clarification:

  • would a parish be able to insist on oversight from a male bishop who shared its stance on male headship?
  • would a parish be able to reject the ministry of a priest or bishop who did not accept the ministry of women?
  • would a PCC be able to insist on limiting sacramental ministry in that parish to male priests ordained by male bishops, or, to go one step further, ordained by male bishops in whose consecration female bishops had not taken part?
  • if it is practically impossible to provide ministry that takes into account all the convictions of a particular parish, what will be the threshold at which the Independent Reviewer would reasonably entertain a grievance?

These are questions that will, of course, be answered in time. Whether the answers will come in time to satisfy the various interest groups voting in General Synod remains to be seen. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

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Cite this article as: Will Adam, “Women bishops – what you see and what you don’t” in Law & Religion UK, 28 October 2013, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2013/10/28/women-bishops-what-you-see-and-what-you-dont/.

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