Further thoughts on objectors to women bishops and how the Church might respond
This post gives further consideration to the Press Release issued by WATCH (Women and the Church) on 20 July, which commented on the presence of objectors at the consecration of female bishops, and hoped that at the next consecration of female bishops, “things will be arranged differently”.
The Press Release quoted from a letter sent by WATCH to the Archbishops of Canterbury which said:
“…such interruptions create the perception that the Church is willing to allow a woman who has been called by God and the Church, and appointed by the Crown, to be publicly insulted and undermined. If that is so, it undermines and insults all women: and especially women for whom female bishops are potent symbols of a radical shift in the Church’s treatment of women. ‘Maybe things haven’t changed at all, underneath’, they might conclude.”
The Press Release asked supporters to write to Cathedral Deans, who carry the responsibility for what happens within the buildings concerned, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury [but, strangely, not the Archbishop of York].
During the consecration of Libby Lane, the first female Church of England bishop, the Revd Paul Williamson stepped forward shouting “not in the Bible” when the Archbishop of York asked the congregation asked if she should be ordained as a bishop. The second time Dr Sentamu asked the congregation, there was no opposition and the ceremony continued. Fr Williamson is an Anglican clergyman who is active in his opposition to the ordination of women per se.
Following various unsuccessful actions in the courts, he was declared a vexatious litigant by a Civil Proceedings Order on 16 July 1997, [R v HM Attorney-General ex parte Reverend Paul Stewart Williamson  EWHC Admin 691]. This significantly restricts the access of Fr Williamson to bring an action in the civil or ecclesiastical courts, as we examined in Vexatious litigants and the consistory courts; however, the views of a vexatious litigant may nevertheless be heard as evidence.
In each of the last four consecrations of female bishops, the same objector, identified as Rev Stephen Holland – a minister from an independent church in Lancashire, asked to voice his objection (i.e. that the ordinations are “unbiblical”).
Our initial consideration of the WATCH Press Release prompted a number of comments on the importance or otherwise of the role of the congregation’s acclamation for bishops-elect. From a legal viewpoint, it is therefore necessary to determine the basis and nature of this acclamation. With regard to “the process of the election and consecration of bishops”, in The Legal Framework of the Church of England, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996), pages 166-7, Norman Doe states that this has been the subject of considerable criticism, and:
“In the entire process, the only opportunity for lay participation is the negative one of objection at the confirmation of election, [i.e. prior to the service of consecration] on the grounds that the election was defective or that the person presented for confirmation was not the royal appointee”.
However, this was published prior to the introduction of Common Worship in 2000 in which there is the following rhetorical exchange, the format of which is common to many services of initiation &c within the Church:
Archbishop “Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that N is ready to undertake, and you have heard his declarations. Is it now your will that he should be ordained?”
All: “It is”.
No such exchange in included in the equivalent service in the Book of Common Prayer and in view of Norman Doe’s comment, there appears to be no legal requirement for its inclusion (other than the assent of General Synod to the format of the service). This raises the question of the purpose of this exchange, and hence the nature of any dissent expressed in response to the Archbishop’s question. It is clearly not part of the legal formalities associated with the ordination; the Archbishop is not required to respond “the ayes have it” (or similar) if the affirmative votes are in the majority, but continues with other questions (Will you continually pray for him? /Will you uphold and encourage him in his ministry?).
With regard to the interjection of objections, therefore, should these be considered as an interruption or disruption of the service, as generally portrayed in the media, or a legitimate part of it? In Liturgy, Order and the Law, (1996, Clarendon Press Oxford, pages 231-2), Rupert Bursell considers a parallel situation in relation to objections to ordination to the diaconate and priesthood according to the Book of Common Prayer and the Alternative Service Book (ASB). He states that in the ASB service of ordination [emphasis added]:
“ … although the bishop still presents the candidate to the people with the question ‘Is it therefore your will that they should be so ordained?’, no provision is made for any objection; indeed, the congregation response is set out as ‘It is’. Nevertheless, the question of impediments is clearly one of good order and the provisions of the Alternative Service Book cannot in these particular circumstances demonstrate that the reception of an objection is ‘not of substantial importance’ within the meaning of Canon B 5 §1. Rather, just because it is itself a matter of good order, it would not be illegal for a member of the congregation to make an objection within the rite according to the ASB …”
It could be argued, therefore, that it is not illegal for an objection to be raised in response to the invitation of the Archbishop at this point in the service, although Bursell notes [page 231]
“an objector who persists in interrupting the services once his objection is overruled is in danger of a prosecution under S2 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860”.
Nevertheless, there seems to be little justification, other than the management of expected dissent, for the cathedral authorities to facilitate the delivery of an objection as indicated in the WATCH letter, particularly at any other point in the service. However, this leaves the authorities with the dilemma of how “things will be arranged differently”, without recourse to investigating the applicability of the heavy-handed legal options we discussed earlier.