Commons debate women in the episcopate

The final parliamentary consideration of the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure took place on the late afternoon of 20 October, when the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, (Banbury, Con), proposed the motion

“That the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure (HC 621), passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which it was laid before Parliament,”[HC Hansard, 20 Oct 2014 Vol 586(45) Col 706].

The motion was passed after a short debate, below, and following Royal Assent, the other remaining legal components will be considered at General Synod 17-18 November

Earlier parliamentary consideration

On 22 July, the Ecclesiastical Committee unanimously supported Sir Tony’s motion that the Measure “be regarded as expedient”, and on 13 October the House of Lords agreed the Motion to Direct, moved by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

“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”.

The proceedings of the Ecclesiastical Committee, including the oral and written evidence presented are contained in its 233rd Report.  The House of Lords debate is reported in Hansard, [14 Oct 2014, Vol 756(38) Col 165] and a summary of the debate is available here.

House of Commons Debate

The tenor of the Commons debate was captured by Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab) who said:

“Anybody looking in on this debate from outside would be rather surprised at how low key and sober it has been, given the momentousness of what we are debating and hopefully approving,” [Col 175]

There were few new insights into the implementation of the Measure: in addition to the many well-deserved acknowledgements to the contributions of Justin Welby and Sir Tony Baldry, there were a couple of “please Sir, can we have a woman bishop” bids, [Hull and Gloucester], whilst other Members of the House were keen to air their knowledge of church history and the classics.

The main scrutiny of the Measure was provided by Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab). After noting:

“Clause 2 makes it clear that bishops are not public office holders under the Equality Act 2010. It is a necessary provision, enabling the Church to provide for those who, as a result of theological conviction, do not wish to receive episcopal oversight from a woman, “[Col 710],

she asked:

“First, will parochial church councils be obliged to inform all members of the Church who are on the electoral roll in a parish that discussions are about to take place regarding resolutions to restrict the ministry of women, so that hole-in-corner decisions are not made?

Secondly, can a parish request oversight from a non-discriminating bishop? The rules allow parishes to request a discriminating bishop. Can they also request a non-discriminating bishop, and can such parishes apply to the new independent reviewer?

Thirdly, will the new conservative evangelical headship bishop minister beyond the parishes that specifically request his ministry?

Fourthly, will the Second Church Estates Commissioner confirm that clause 2 will not validate any further discriminatory practices?

There is a fifth, and very important, question, which relates not to the Church but to the Government. . . . As the Second Church Estates Commissioner said, bishops are currently appointed to the other place on the basis of seniority. I understand that to change that we shall need primary legislation, because otherwise the advent of women in the other place will come about at some far distant time, and none of us wants that. . .  The Clerks inform me that only eight Bills are before Parliament at the moment, whereas in a year we normally have 22 Bills going through the House, so there seems to be lots of time available,” [Col 711]

On this last important question, Sir Tony responded:

“ . . . The situation is more that the Government are in the process of finding this time. . . . This is much more about when, not if, the Government find time within the legislation programme. That is very much the impression I have got from my discussions with the Leader of the House and his equivalent in the other place”, [Col 711],

and in relation to the nature of this legislation:

“The Bill to enable women to become Lords Spiritual will be introduced in due course and will be very short. We could probably have taken it through in the time that was available this evening. It will be a two-clause Bill. I will continue to do my best, through the usual channels, to ensure that we find time for it”, [Col 723].

Following up his assertion that Clause 2 was “unfortunate that, at a time when we are advancing equality, we have to amend the Equality Act to carve out a chunk of the Church of England”, Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) pointedly noted:

“the battle for decency and the rights of all within the Church is a seamless garment—it does not distinguish between the rights of gay men and those of women in the Church,” [Col 721].

Concluding the debate, Sir Tony addressed the questions that had been raised by Helen Goodman and others:

“A certain amount has been said about clause 2. . . . This evening, the House is considering a Measure to enable there to be women bishops. Within the context of providing for women bishops, the purpose of clause 2 is to enable the House of Bishops’ declaration and the five guiding principles to work without the risk of litigation. There will be occasions when bishops—men as well as women—have to ask another bishop to exercise some of their functions in relation to a particular parish. However, if episcopal posts were public offices, as defined in the Equality Act 2010, appointing to them in the expectation that the person concerned would observe that self-denying ordinance would constitute discrimination in the terms in which the appointment was offered. We do not believe that episcopal offices currently fall within the definition of a public office. Interestingly, it came out in the House of Lords debate last week that membership of the House of Lords does not fall within the definition of a public office in the Equality Act either. However, it is unclear what view the courts would take if the matter were ever tested. Clause 2 therefore puts the matter beyond doubt.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) asked whether parochial church councils will be required to consult their congregations and wider parishes before they pass a resolution. The answer is absolutely yes. The arrangements by which PCCs will pass resolutions is set out in paragraphs 16 to 22 of the House of Bishops’ declaration. The importance of the decision is respected by the fact that at least four weeks’ notice has to be given of the time and place of the meeting, and of the motion to be considered. In addition, the motion will pass only if it achieves an absolute majority of all members of the PCC or a majority of those present at a meeting of at least two-thirds of the members of the PCC who are entitled to attend.

On non-discriminating bishops, we must all recognise that in future every diocese will have a bishop who ordains women and who will be a champion for their ministry. There should be no part of England where it is not possible to have a bishop who ordains women. A headship evangelical bishop will be a bishop in the Church of England and a bishop in the Church of God, not just a bishop in a particular constituency, so he will be a bishop for the whole diocese, [Col 722, 723]

Associated with this last point, Sir Peter Bottomley said

“One question that has not been raised this evening, but was raised in the House of Lords, where the Archbishop of Canterbury’s answer was delphic, is whether the archbishops will consecrate other bishops when they are physically able to do so or whether they will opt out”,

to which Sir Tony Baldry countered:

“The Archbishop’s answer was very clear; it was not delphic at all. I commend Lords Hansard to colleagues. He set out the circumstances very clearly. He made it clear that, in the normal course of events, archbishops will consecrate all bishops, but that there will be circumstances when an archbishop is ill or overseas. His point was that there is no great issue about that, and none intended,” [Col 724].

Hansard records the archbishop as saying:

“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, “ [HL Hansard, 14 Oct 2014, Vol 756(38) Col 186].

Next Steps

The focus now shifts to the November General Synod, where the remaining legislative provisions will be addressed, viz.

  • 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 – 18 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 amendments to the Regulations must be approved in General Synod by a two-thirds majority in each House.

The promised legislation to fast-track of women bishops to the House of Lords is cannot be introduced until most of the above provisions have been approved. The issues that this raises will be considered in another post.


On Thursday 23 October, both Houses of Parliament were notified that Her Majesty had signified her Royal Assent to the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure 2014, here and here.