Lords debate women in the episcopate

The legislative process to enable women to be ordained as bishops moved a step closed last night as the House of Lords agreed the Motion to Direct, moved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, [HL Hansard, 14 Oct 2014, Vol 756(38) Col 165]

“That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent”.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern reminded their Lordships of the restricted nature of this motion[1].  Nevertheless, the 95 minute debate raised important issues, primarily by crossbenchers Baroness Howe of Idlicote and Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and these were addressed by Archbishop Welby and the Lord Bishop of Rochester who chaired the General Synod steering committee responsible for this Measure.

Introducing the debate, the Archbishop briefly summarized the events leading up to the Measure, noting that “After all, surely the big step was taken in the early 1990s with the admission of women to the priesthood[2]. That indeed is true theologically and psychologically” He also clarified that Measure before the House:

“is to enable the Church of England, for the first time, to open all three orders of ministry—deacons, priests and bishops—without reference to gender. The process that was begun by the legislation to enable women to become deacons in the 1980s and then priests in the 1990s will at last be completed by legislation which enables women to become bishops—and indeed, archbishops, since they are not a separate order of ministry in the Church of England,”

for which it was necessary to address

“how to try and maintain the theological breadth and diversity of the Church of England while securing a solution which avoids any appearance of equivocation over the Church of England’s commitment to equality between men and women.”

The are two important consequences of the Measure:

  • Clause 2 which contains a clarificatory provision concerning the definition of “public office” in the Equality Act, as detailed in the Church’s memorandum to the Ecclesiastical Committee. The Church does not believe that episcopal offices fall within the definition of “public office” in the Equality Act, and Clause 2 was introduced “to put the matter beyond any doubt” that may arise during subsequent judicial consideration;
  • The Benches of the Lords Spiritual will in due course include women as well as men, although this ”could take some time if the normal seniority system were simply left to take its course”.  Synod was not empowered to include in the Measure amendments to the law on the issuing of parliamentary writs.  However, the Archbishop stated:

“there has been consultation with all the main parties on the possibility of a very short and simple government Bill which could be taken through this Session to accelerate the arrival of the first women Lords spiritual. There has been solid cross-party support and I very much hope that the Government will be able to find a suitable legislative slot very shortly.”

Lord Lloyd of Berwick provided their Lordships with some background to the current position in the CofE: there are 1,650 parishes where Resolutions A & B are in force; women priests account for one-third of all serving clergy; there are currently 22 women archdeacons and 6 women deans. He also commented:

“[u]nlike Frank Field . . . I am not surprised that it has taken so long to reach the position that we have now reached. I do not think that the church is in any way to be criticised on that account. . . . In the first place, the theological convictions of those who opposed women priests 21 years ago have not lessened in the meantime. . .  equally important, there is the ecumenical argument, which is simply not to be brushed aside. One can just about imagine the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions accepting women priests in our lifetime, but it is clear that, for them, women bishops are simply out of the question.”

Lady Howe, who is vice-president of WATCH, (Women and the Church), made two valuable observations, [Col 173]:

“whether there might be some problems for senior women who might be considered for episcopal appointments. One is that they may have served many years in more junior positions despite their gifts and experience, and therefore be older than the usual run of candidates. Further, while some have already achieved high office, others might not have had the opportunity to follow the path which has previously been the norm for candidates to high office.


New diocesan bishops normally have to wait their turn, which can take five years or more. Members of both Houses have expressed concerns on this point in relation to newly appointed women bishops and would be interested to know of any arrangements to appoint women to this House as early as possible”,

and sought answers to four important questions from the ABC[3]:

  • Q1: Can the Archbishops confirm that they will continue to observe the long-standing tradition of consecrating each new bishop? The document was silent on this point, but the most reverend Primate will appreciate how important it is for the validation of the episcopal orders of women and of those male bishops who ordain women.
  • Q2: How can congregations in favour of the ordained ministry of women request the episcopal ministry of a non-discriminating bishop? As I understand it, the bishops’ declaration allows for parochial church councils—PCCs—on behalf of their congregations, to request the episcopal ministry of a male bishop.
  • Q3: Can the most reverend Primate confirm that any newly appointed conservative evangelical headship bishop will minister only to parishes that request his ministry? There appear to be two possible models for the appointment of a headship bishop: the “flying bishop” model instituted by the Act of Synod of 1993, where a bishop would minister only to those parishes that specifically requested his oversight; or to make a suffragan appointment to a specific see.
  • Q4: Can the most reverend Primate confirm that Clause 2 of the Measure will have the effect of allowing the church to discriminate exclusively on grounds of gender and will not facilitate discrimination on grounds of sexuality and remarriage after divorce?

On this last point, Lady Howe highlighted the implications of Clause 2 and sought documented assurance, stating:

“ . . . the effect of this clause is finally and irrevocably to exempt the bishops from the anti-discrimination requirements of the Equalities Act 2010, not only in relation to gender but also in relation to other protected characteristics under that Act, including, most importantly for the church, sexuality and remarriage after divorce.

Verbal assurances have been given that the bishops will not avail themselves of that exception, and I think that that is also what the most reverend Primate was telling us, but to have that assurance recorded in Hansard would really be a great help. I very much look forward to the most reverend Primate’s reply.”

On Q2, the Bishop of Rochester said [Col 179]:

“I cannot quote chapter and verse but it is stated in the House of Bishops declaration that it is expected that there would be no diocese in which there would not be a bishop who would ordain women. That is part of the intention set out in the House of Bishops declaration. This therefore means that within any diocese there would be access to a bishop who supports the ordained ministry of women,”

and on Q3 [Col 179],

“Our view is that it is important that a person appointed to the headship bishop role—to use the shorthand term—is acceptable to the people who requested that kind of ministry but, at the end of the day, a bishop is a bishop is a bishop within the church of God and it might be good if that person was somehow tied into what we might call the mainstream ministry of bishops in some way and therefore prevented from becoming overly sectarian. However, those issues are still being discussed and the issues to which the noble Baroness alluded are very much in people’s minds.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to Baroness Howe’s other questions, and on Q1 said, [Col 186]:

“We have just appointed a Bishop of Hereford, aged 64, six years before obligatory retirement, and I see absolutely no reason—I feel passionate about this—why we should not draw on the experience of those who have spent many years in non-episcopal ministries. It is essential to improving the quality of bishops. As we deepen the pool, we do so in terms of gender but also in terms of looking very openly at those who have the greater experience.”

and with regard to consecration of women bishops,

“The noble Baroness asked what would happen at consecrations and whether we can commit to archbishops, as has been traditional, where possible playing a role as chief consecrator. It has always been in the power of archbishops to delegate to another bishop the normal role of chief consecrator, which has happened quite regularly when an archbishop is unwell or absent for another reason. Whether an archbishop would choose to do so in a particular case will as a matter of law remain for the archbishop to decide.

The present archbishops—I have discussed this at great length with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York—cannot bind their successors, and we are very careful about that, but the five guiding principles of the House of Bishops provide a framework which should make it possible for arrangements to develop which are generally accepted and part of the way in which the Church of England continues to manage diversity”.

Finally, on the important issue of Clause 2 in Q4, he said [186]

“Clause 2, referring to the Equality Act, is not designed to facilitate discrimination in relation to any protected characteristic. It was put in place in particular with this characteristic in mind, but there would have been no logic in providing that episcopal posts were public offices for one equality but not for another—you would simply get in a muddle. The assurance that I can give is that already a large number of clergy posts in the Church of England are not within the terms of the Equality Act. As a matter of policy, the House of Bishops has advised that those in parochial appointments should act as though the Act applied. This change is not a cloak for discrimination on sexuality, marital status, marital history or, for that matter, age. I hope that that to some degree answers the noble Baroness’s question.”


Although Hansard now records the ABC’s response to Lady Howe’s Q4, in view of the nature of the debate[1] and his non-governmental position, such assurances carry different weight from those made by a government minister at the dispatch box and subsequently relied upon under Pepper v Hart.

With regard to the application of the Equality Act, the Archbishop’s specification of “parochial appointments” implicitly acknowledges that the House of Bishops considers other appointments differently, i.e. hospital chaplains.  With regard to remarriage after divorce, this dispensation is not strictly within the gift of the bishops, as clergy are provided  a “conscience clause”  directly through s8(2) Matrimonial Causes Act 1965.

On Monday 20 October, the House of Commons will consider the Motion: “To approve a Church of England Measure relating to women bishops”.  Following the expected vote in favour, the Measure will be presented to the monarch for Royal Assent after which it becomes part of the law of the land. However, the Measure is only one of the several legislative provisions necessary to enable women to be appointed as bishops. With regard to the others:

  • Amending Canon No 33: Of the consecration of bishops &c: Following the grand of Royal Assent and Licence, the Amending Canon will be promulged at General Synod in London, 17 to 19 November
  • Act of Synod Rescinding the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993: No further approval is required and it will be brought into effect by the Archbishops in their respective Provinces once the Amending Canon 33 is promulged and executed.
  • House of Bishops’ Declaration: No further approval required and no subsequent changes will be made.
  • Regulations pursuant to House of Bishops’ Declaration: The House of Bishops will make Regulations prescribing a procedure for the resolution of disputes arising from the arrangements, as included in the Declaration. These will be laid before the November General Synod, after the Amending Canon 33 is promulged and need no further approval. However, subsequent changes to the Regulations must be approved in General Synod by a two-thirds majority in each House.


The Archbishop refused to be drawn on the “elephant trap” issue of disestablishment, [Col 188], alluded to by Lord Tyler, [Col 180], but not otherwise raised during the debate.  He will likewise be aware of the potential challenges that might be made to the number of bishops in the Upper House that may result from the introduction of a “very short and simple government Bill which could be taken through this Session to accelerate the arrival of the first women Lords Spiritual”.


[1] “ . . I want to emphasise, as strongly as I can, that we are dealing here with a decision by the Church of England. The Measure has been decided on by the Church of England and the role of Members of this House is to approve it so that it becomes part of the law of England. I particularly want to emphasise that it was for the Church of England to decide this, not Parliament. The Church of England has now decided it and it is for Parliament simply to approve it so that it becomes part of the law of England”, [Col 180].

[2] In 1992 General Synod agreed the legislation which resulted in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 and enabled women to be ordained priests in the Church of England.

[3] The numbering of the questions is our own for the convenience of subsequent reference and the avoidance of repetition.

11 thoughts on “Lords debate women in the episcopate

  1. Footnote 2 should refer to the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1992, not the 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure

    • Thanks Simon. I have amended footnote 2 which now cites the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 that was passed by Synod in 1992.

  2. Two aspects of Clause 2 are concerning:

    1 On one view the CofE is proposing (an aspect of) its own disestablishment. Fine by me, but not by all.
    2 The Howe – ABC exchange is concerning for the reasons David gives. As the ABC’s statement is not “Pepper v Hart”-able, what is to stop the clause being quoted in future CofE efforts to defend discrimination against a holder of one of the other protected characteristics at a future employment tribunal?

  3. In the light of the Pilling report et al we should at last be proposing Bishops that believe in Christianity and the 39 articles. They are, after all, supposed to be Bishops of the CofE. Instead we are discussing fast-tracking bishops. Completely off-topic.

    I don’t have any problem with women priests at any level, but fast-tracking bishops is completely skewed abd off-topic.

  4. How can a Christian church allow a secular body determine its values, beliefs and (in this particular case) its order?

      • The short answer is, in the instant case, as a result of a complex set of interactions between Church and State going back to the English Reformation and beyond. A long answer is beyond both the length of a sensible comment and my competence to make one: it must be worth several PhD theses.

        But given that things are as they are, what would be your solution: to disestablish the C of E? As a Quaker I couldn’t, legitimately, have any problem with that in principle – though I think that, given the complexity of such a proposal and the effort required to accomplish it, the game wouldn’t be worth the candle.

        But, in any case, I’m not sure that “a secular body” determined the beliefs of the C of E. The Nicene Creed wasn’t invented at Westminster.

        • Frank: I assume you were replying to David Thornton rather than to me. But to expand my gnomic last, just in case:

          As another Quaker I also find it intolerable that the state should dictate to a church how it should run its affairs. Equally, I find it intolerable that, as in this case, a church can unilaterally amend the Equality Act, as an agent of the state, without parliamentarians having any say in it

          • Iain

            Indeed I was replying to David Thornton. But I wouldn’t disagree with your comment: the power of General Synod to amend primary legislation by Measure is an issue that might usefully be considered in any more general review of constitutional arrangements in the wake of the Scottish referendum. But I doubt if any of the major parties will want to go there.


  5. Pingback: Commons debate women in the episcopate | Law & Religion UK

  6. Pingback: Kiwianglo's Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *