After its 19-20 May meeting, held in York in advance of the July General Synod, the House of Bishops issued a statement summarizing their discussions. This post focusses on the issues associated with the admission of women to the episcopate, and provides some context to the relevant part of the statement, viz.
“On the progression of legislation enabling Women in the Episcopate, the House approved the House of Bishops Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests which sets out arrangements for those parishes who on theological grounds are unable to accept the ministry of women priests or bishops. The House also voted to amend their standing orders so to ensure the Declaration cannot be amended without the majority of two-thirds of each house of the General Synod. The House agreed guidance notes for Bishops and Parishes on the Declaration that will be issued prior to General Synod.
The House of Bishops supported exploring with political parties the possibility of amending existing arrangements for the selection of Lords Spiritual in order that the first women diocesan Bishops will be able to become members of the Bishops’ Bench in the House of Lords more quickly than would otherwise be the case under current arrangements.”
Fast Tracking: Lords Spiritual
The second paragraph of the Statement above could be taken as suggesting that the discussions with the political parties are about to take place. However, as we noted in our post Composition of the Lords Spiritual, during the Westminster Hall debate Women’s Contribution to the Ordained Ministry (Church of England), the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, indicated that this process was already in progress. Furthermore, the CofE was considering this possibility as early as 2011 in anticipation of the House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13: in its written submission, (GS MISC 1004) to the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill and the oral evidence of the then Archbishop of Canterbury on 15 November 2011.
In addition to the legal issues associated with fast tracking to the House of Lords, there is the question of whether the new bishop(s) would wish to become Lords Spiritual almost immediately after appointment, given that the diocese is their main priority. Although Canon C 18 Of Diocesan Bishops provides for the attendance of a diocesan bishop on the Parliament or on the Court [Canon C18 §8], it makes it clear that the primary role is to provide leadership within their diocese as ‘chief pastor’ and ‘principal minister, [Canon C18 §4].
If fast tracking is instigated, this raises the question of whether the potential to contribute to the work of the Lords Spiritual will be an important consideration in the appointment process? Consideration of such issues would provide a further opportunity for the Church to consider how it might best use its representation in the House of Lords, as already considered by the House of Bishops in the context of House of Lords Reform Bill 2012-13.
Progress of legislation
The Bishops’ statement reports
“the House approved the House of Bishops Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests which sets out arrangements for those parishes who on theological grounds are unable to accept the ministry of women priests or bishops. The House also voted to amend their standing orders so to ensure the Declaration cannot be amended without the majority of two-thirds of each house of the General Synod. The House agreed guidance notes for Bishops and Parishes on the Declaration that will be issued prior to General Synod.”
Although some synodical discussion has expressed concern regarding the replacement of “legislation” in the form of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 by the House of Bishops’ Declaration, in terms of their legal effect, this is the replacement of one quasi-legislative instrument with another. Furthermore, the requirement of a two-thirds majority in each house of General Synod for the introduction of amendments further strengthens the Declaration. Readers will appreciate that we are in deep “quasi-law territory” here, with different degrees of reliance being placed on: the Declaration; Standing Orders; and Guidance Notes.
In Women in the episcopate – further progress we noted that following approval of General Synod in February, the draft Measure and Canon would go to the diocesan synods for approval, and provided it was approved by a majority before 22 May 2014, General Synod will be able to hold the final approval debate in July 2014. Although two diocesan synods have yet to vote, (and Europe has been unable to arrange a synodical vote within the three month timeslot), the simple majority was exceeded on 29 March. Details of the voting have been tacked by Peter Owen, here.
 The Daily Telegraph headline “Women bishops to be fast-tracked into House of Lords” was followed by the statement “Bishops agree to open talks with main political parties to relax rules to allow female clerics onto red benches” and the less certain “[w]omen bishops could be fast-tracked into the House of Lords under plans backed by the Church of England’s current all-male episcopate”, [our emphases].