Acclamation, assent and disruption

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 [1997] 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.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Acclamation, assent and disruption" in Law & Religion UK, 25 July 2016,

11 thoughts on “Acclamation, assent and disruption

  1. As David Pocklington points out, the ‘problem’ is with the current liturgy for the Ordination and Consecration of Bishops in which the Archbishop, after the ordinands have given their assent to the various ‘charges’ put to them, asks the congregation, “Is it now your will that they should be ordained?” Although the printed Order of Service provides (in bold) only for the congregation to say “It is” (followed by affirming that they will “continually pray for them” and “uphold and encourage them in their ministry”), the Archbishop’s question effectively invites a voice of dissent.

    In York Minster in January 2015, when Libby Lane was consecrated as the first female bishop in the Church of England, Archbishop Sentamu was clearly prepared for Paul Williamson’s objection and, in response, read out a short statement that referred to the legislation making the ordination legal. Mr Williamson then made a dignified withdrawal from the Minster. I agree, therefore, with Rupert Bursell that the absence in the ordination liturgy of provision for an objection (contrast the marriage service in which the minister says to the congregation, “First, I am required to ask anyone present who knows a reason why these persons may not lawfully marry, to declare it now.”) should not preclude the voicing of an objection, provided it is not pursued once overruled.

    I agree, also, though, that such an objection should not be facilitated. I was present in Westminster Abbey on 24 February 2016 when, in addition to Karen Gorham being ordained as suffragan Bishop of Sherborne, Mike Harrison was being ordained suffragan Bishop of Dunwich in my diocese. I was seated in the south transept, so could not see Stephen Holland when he voiced his objection. Justin Welby was ready for the objection, and responded to it as Dr Sentamu had done earlier in York. However, like many around me, I was surprised that Mr Holland (we did not know his identity at the time) had been provided with a microphone. It may be that the Abbey authorities considered that this was desirable to minimise the potential disruption to the service, but I would question their judgment. No such assistance was provided to Mr Williamson in York, and to give it could be construed as indicating collusion by the Abbey authorities. It should not be repeated.

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  4. As a priest and not a lawyer, it seems to me that dialogues in the liturgy are fully scripted. If someone does not wish to answer as set in the text they can only decline to continue with the liturgy; they cannot answer with an alternative, unauthorised text.
    Although not strictly questions, take the Sursum Corda from the BCP:
    Priest. Lift up your hearts.
    Answer. We lift them up unto the Lord
    The answer cannot be “We lift them up unto Baal” or “I don’t lift mine up to any god.”
    or, from MP/EP:
    Priest. O Lord, save the Queen.
    Answer. And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee.
    To call out, “No, I’m a republican.” would be clearly a disruption
    In the marriage service:
    let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.
    leaves a reply unscripted so that an objector can raise any of the legal impediments.
    For an archbishop or dean to facilitate a response to the question “Is it now your will that he should be ordained?” other than that in the authorised liturgy is to use a service not ‘authorised or allowed by canon.’ And any congregation member who shouts out words not set in the liturgy is disrupting the service.

  5. Studies of this question should take into account disputed elections in the Early Church (for example that of St. Ambrose to the see of Milan where a child’s voice is claimed to have settled the issue or that of St; Martin to Tours when against the wishes of a refined aristocratic episcopate the urban poor expressed their preference for this hirsute ascetic). The studies of the French scholar Michel Perrin might be usefully consulted for the third and fourth centuries when popular participation, frequently leading to disturbance and even, for example in Rome, to fatalities, was a dominant factor.

  6. One thing not mentioned hitherto, except perhaps by implication at one point, is the process of consultation within a diocese leading to the appointments committee shortlisting and choosing the candidate. Surely this is to be considered a point where objections on principle to certain classes of candidate should be considered: this is the proper place for them. Indeed the deliberative process leading to the legislation is probably to be considered in this light. The effect of this is, I would presume, to mean that objections on ecclesiological principle have already been met and the presumption, therefore, of the liturgy that it is the will of the people and that they will pray for the candadite, etc is fair. The implication being that those who object on principle have already had proper opportunity to do so and now is not the time to continue to raise objections that have been thoroughly visited and revisited. In a sense objectors should recommend they are in a dissenting minority and stand aside while making their arguments, should they wish to pursue them, in other formats and other occasions.

    • Indeed. Back to my wedding analogy. The moment for objections is past and “hereafter for ever hold his peace” now applies.

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  8. At all Orthodox ordinations, episcopal or otherwise, the congregation are invited to reply: ‘Axios’ (worthy). Dissent can be expressed by silence or occasionally by the negative: ‘Anaxios’.

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