Women in the episcopate – next steps

In contrast to Monday’s General Synod and the cloud cast over the proceedings by Dr Carey’s much-criticized speech in Shropshire, the overwhelming vote in support of women in the episcopate generated a raft of positive publicity. This will surely be welcomed by those responsible for the Church’s interface with the media, though perhaps a sterner test will be how press reaction to the forthcoming Pilling Report is anticipated and handled.

The CofE Daily Digest for 21 November was headed by links to the “women bishops” story in the Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Times, Independent, Guardian, and Daily Telegraph.  A notable absence from this listing was The Tablet’s encouraging article by Liz Dodd, Revitalised CofE Synod clears major hurdle in passing women bishops legislation”, which was in sharp contrast to the terse report in Vatican Insider and the absence of comment in the on-line version of The Catholic Herald.

For readers of this blog, however, perhaps the most significant aspect of the debate was the absence of amendments to the package so that it could go to the House of Bishops for clarification and not for alteration. The exchange on “women bishops” in the Lords during Prime Minister’s Questions prior to the Synod vote also bears some consideration.

Within the wider Anglican Communion, 35 women have been consecrated to date and of these, 25 are currently serving.  As at 20 November 2013, three Anglican women are bishops-elect.


Next Steps

In the shadow of the vote, it is easy to forget exactly where one is in the legislative process of the new Measure and revised Canon.  The Church’s current deliberations on women in the episcopate began in July 2000 and are summarized here. Given the complexity of the legislation-making process in the Church, the Legislation in Progress pages provide insufficient information about the progress of a draft instrument, unlike the excellent  “Progress of the Bill” pages on the UK Parliament site, shown here for the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013-14.

A comprehensive picture of the law-making processes involved in General Synod is provided in the paper “Synodical Government and the Legislative Process”, [2012] 14 Ecc LJ 43–81, by Stephen Slack, Registrar and Chief Legal Adviser to the General Synod.  He notes [at page 54] that

“before [legislation can be introduced to the Synod either by the Archbishops’ Council or by the Business Committee of the Synod] … Measures having a significant policy content will generally have been the subject of earlier debate(s).


“[this] can give rise to misunderstanding: as in the case of the draft legislation relating to women in the episcopate, members of Synod can wrongly assume that preliminary debates of this kind have conclusively settled the Synod’s position in relation to issues that have been debated, when in fact they remain open for subsequent further debate and decision in the course of the legislative process itself.

There are five formal stages to the legislative process:

  • First Consideration, when the Measure is the subject of general debate;
  • Revision Committee Stage, when a Revision Committee considers it clause by clause, together with any proposals for its amendment;
  • Revision Stage, when it is subjected to a similar process on the floor of the Synod, but with amendments normally limited to matters addressed by the Revision Committee;
  • Final Drafting, when the Steering Committee for the draft Measure (ie the members responsible for its progress through its synodical stages) can move certain limited types of amendment intended to put it into its final form; and
  • Final Approval.

On the Wednesday morning, the Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff, moved the following motion, which was carried by 378 votes to 8, with 25 abstentions:

“That this Synod, welcoming the package of proposals in GS 1924  and the statement of principles endorsed by the House of Bishops at paragraph 12 of GS 1886, invite the House of Bishops to bring to the Synod for consultation in February a draft declaration and proposals for a mandatory disputes resolution procedure which build on the agreement reached by the Steering Committee as a result of its facilitated discussions”.

At its First Consideration in the afternoon session, Synod voted to progress the legislation to its next legislative stage of revision at its next meeting in February. However, as a result of the votes carried, Synod agreed to dispense with the normal Revision Committee process and move straight to revision in full Synod, which next meets in February 2014, “thereby clearing the way for a possible vote on final approval later in 2014”.

The many issues which are to be resolved were comprehensively reviewed in Will Adam’s guest post “Women bishops – what you see and what you don’t”.

Women bishops in the House of Lords

The following exchange on women bishops took place at Prime Minister’s Questions on 20 November [20 Nov 2013 : Column 1224]:

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): General Synod is meeting today and hopefully will find a way to enable women as soon as possible to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. If this is successful, will my right hon. Friend and the Government support amendments to the Bishops Act to ensure that women bishops can be admitted to the House of Lords as soon as possible rather than new women bishops having to queue up behind every existing diocesan bishop before we can see women bishops in Parliament?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend follows these matters closely and asks an extremely important question. I strongly support women bishops and hope the Church of England takes this key step to ensure its place as a modern Church in touch with our society. On the problem he raises—there is, of course, a seniority rule for bishops entering the House of Lords—the Government are ready to work with the Church to see how we can get women bishops into the House of Lords as soon as possible.

The number of bishops in the Upper House was first limited (to 26) by the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 and the present arrangements are made under section 5 Bishoprics Act 1878, viz. 

“The number of Lords Spiritual sitting and voting as Lords of Parliament shall not be increased by the foundation of a new bishopric [after the year 1846]; and whenever there is a vacancy among such Lords Spiritual by the avoidance of any of the sees of Canterbury, York, London, Durham, or Winchester, such vacancy shall be supplied by the issue of a writ of summons to the bishop acceding to the see so avoided; and if such vacancy is caused by the avoidance of any see other than one of the five sees aforesaid, such vacancy shall be supplied by the issue of a writ of summons to that bishop of a see in England who having been longest bishop of a see in England has not previously become entitled to such writ: Provided, that where a bishop is translated from one see to another, and was at the date of his translation actually sitting as a Lord of Parliament, he shall not thereupon lose his right to receive a writ of summons to Parliament.”

Additionally, the three senior bishops of the Church: Canterbury, York, and London, are made Privy Councillors on their appointment.  Changes to the 1878 Act raise a number of issues: the “Buggins’ Turn” provision applies to the 21 diocesan bishops. Currently there are 113 bishops within the Church of England: 44 diocesan bishops (including the offshore dioceses of Sodor & Man and Gibraltar in Europe, neither of whose occupants is eligible to sit in the Lords) and 69 suffragan and full-time assistant bishops, including area bishops and provincial episcopal visitors. Peter Owen’s list of English diocesan see Vacancies is here.

It is quite conceivable that were changes to the 1878 Act to be subject to Parliamentary debate, the total number of Lords Spiritual would be brought into question, either within the Bill or as the result of subsequent amendments. Alternatively, a Church Measure could be introduced to change this primary legislation; but that would still be subject to scrutiny by the Ecclesiastical Committee and it would not be uncontroversial.

No wonder the Archbishop of York urged caution against premature celebration and opening “the champagne bottles or whatever drink we regard as celebratory”.

4 thoughts on “Women in the episcopate – next steps

  1. Pingback: CofE Women Bishops may be approved soon - Christian Forums

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