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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Female Bishops: on not letting it go

This is the blog I did not want to write.  It is of course about the vote in Synod on women in the episcopate. 

Tuesday 20 November at 6.15pm is now one of those ‘you’ll always remember where you were when it happened’ moments. We had just come out of evensong.  At the service we had heard one of the finest of all psalms, 104: ‘O Lord how manifold are thy works: in wisdom hast thou made them all, the earth is full of thy riches’.  We had prayed for the Synod and its work.  Afterwards a group of us chatted amiably outside the Deanery gate in the dark, waiting for the result. When it came, it was a palpable shock.  We couldn’t believe it. I felt for all the female clergy and how devalued they must be feeling.  I felt for the whole church in throwing away a wonderful opportunity to enrich its ministry.
When I looked at the voting figures a few minutes later, I was baffled. The overall majority in favour was much bigger than I had dared to hope: nearly three quarters of those in the chamber. That, read against the fact that 42 out of 44 dioceses had supported it, meant that the resolution had achieved the convincing majority politicians would die for. It looked like a fair following wind (of the Spirit?) for women in the episcopate. It was only the Byzantine synodical rules of engagement that did for it.

Since then, I have had many conversations with people inside and outside the church. Inside, there is shame, anger, despair.  Outside there is incomprehension and the sense,  even among those who wish us well, that the Church of England has shot itself in the foot, lost its authority and put its role in the nation at risk.  As we can see from the quality press, it has stirred up a national debate about how fit the church is any more to fulfil that role. To quote Father Brown, it was never impossible that the vote could go down, but it would be incredible.  This is what our fellow-travellers are saying to us.  There is no answer to it.

In Tuesday’s backwash, there was an ominous symptom of attitude in the church that needs examining.  We were told that General Synod will not now meet in February but only in July 2013. This is extraordinary.  When the nation is in crisis, Parliament is summoned within days to consider it and guide those who have to make rapid decisions in life-threatening situations.  When the Church of England is in its gravest crisis for decades, the Synod postpones its next meeting and decides that it will be sufficient to meet in 8 months’ time.

This looks like a bad case of loss of nerve. It's as if we are in denial that the situation is as serious and urgent as it is.  This is how it’s being perceived in the nation. Most significant at a time of trial, it looks like a failure of governance. There is a big reputational risk here. Just when you want your governing body to be there and exercise its proper authority, it vanishes like the Cheshire Cat into the thicket not to be seen again till the sun comes out next summer. I urge the Synod to meet in the next few weeks to show both church and nation that it has noticed what is happening and is doing something about it.


‘Where are we now on women as bishops?’ I asked in a previous blog.  Actually, the same as where we were on Tuesday morning: poised to take this life-changing step with conviction, confident that theology, the nation’s zeitgeist and the will of the church are all behind us. The trouble is, the system for doing that is now discredited. It is time for reform.  Here are some of my thoughts about this.

1.  Voting by houses in the Synod should be abolished.  In an age of collaborative ministry, we are all one in the chamber.  There is no case for a system which, in an extreme example, could have a motion carried unanimously in the houses of clergy and laity but be lost by a single vote in the house of bishops.  The majority would be 95% in favour but it would still be lost in a vote by houses.

2.  W
e should overhaul the system by which laity are elected to the Synod.  Having deanery synods as the electoral college for each diocese is the weak link in the chain because not enough laity are convinced that serving on a deanery synod is a good use of their time.  This opens the way for parties and pressure-groups to exploit the system and get their adherents on to deanery synods to vote in partisan General Synod candidates.  I should like to see a universal franchise of all the laity on electoral rolls (who are already eligible under the rules to stand as candidates), just as the licensed clergy are already franchised.
3.  All candidates for election should be required to state where they currently stand on the likely big issues of their quinquennium so that the electoral colleges know what, as well as whom, they are voting in. Elected members are representatives not delegates, and they must be allowed to listen to arguments and change their minds.  But some preliminary indication is needed.

4.  The General Synod needs to be a lot more versatile and light-footed so that it can meet at short notice for a day to debate real emergencies. This is one of them. Arguments about spaces not being available are specious. Most of the nation’s cathedrals could easily accommodate such a meeting, and among them, half a dozen would be available quickly.  


Someone replied to one of my tweets: ‘just let it go; get over it’.  Well, here is why I am not letting it go, because the system that resulted in this fiasco is itself wrong.  Had a majority in the house voted against, that would have been a different matter.  I don’t have a problem with losing an argument and accepting that the organisation wants to go in a different direction – so long, that is, that the process for reaching that place is fair.  My issue today is that it isn’t.

A final thought.  I firmly believe that we shall have female bishops in our church one day, perhaps soon.  It’s not a question of whether but of when. I have a hunch that when it comes back for decision, it will be in a sharper, more convincing, more unafraid form than it did this time.  That will be a much better outcome for the future.  Tuesday’s will turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory for those whom history will inevitably pass by. We have seen this all before, in relation to slavery, contraception and remarriage after divorce.  The church usually gets it in the end by God’s grace.  I simply want to see us get it in my lifetime. 
I pray for that, and have not lost heart.  


  1. Yes! The announcement of no Synod till July is most incredible. I am sure of the need to think and reflect coolly. But these strange events are enabling that to happen already.

  2. thanks for this post - I remember when I stood for General Synod many years ago and put my 'fixed points' on my election statement, adding that on the other issues I'd wait to hear the debate, otherwise why bother with the debate? I got the feeling, listening to the audio feed on Tues, that there was no point to *that* debate at all.

  3. PS the wording may suggest that only people ON deanery synods can stand. That's not so. They are the electors, not the candidates. To be a candidate you only need to be:
    18 or over
    An ‘actual Communicant’ in the Church of England
    On the electoral roll of a parish or the community roll of a cathedral

  4. Thanks for these comments. I have clarified the last point mentioned, for which I am grateful.

  5. I agree with everything you say, except two points:

    1) That Synod should meet as soon as possible. Perhaps if we are patient for a resolution, a far better solution will be found where we're not trying to patch up on old system in which inequality is inherent, but create a new system in which equality is the basis. As I suggest in my blog (http://www.richardhilton.co.uk/blog/2012/equality-in-the-church), the Church would then be leading, rather than being led by, society.

    2) That you want to see it in your lifetime. I guess, on one level, most/all supporters of equality in the episcopacy would say this. But there have been too many people praying/saying/tweeting "I hope Synod decides xyz" rather than "I hope synod is able to successfully discern God's will for His Church". Saying "I want" tends to push God to one side.

    If it is God's will to have women bishops, it will happen, but in his time, not ours.

    Otherwise, I couldn't agree more!

    1. Sorry, I don't know why my reply was listed as anonymous. And here's the blog link: http://www.richardhilton.co.uk/blog/2012/equality-in-the-church

  6. Well said and thank you. Synod is broken and we, the laity, are betrayed by that brokenness. But there's an easy fix available that doesn't involve doing away with the houses or doing away with the 2/3 majority principle: a 2/3 overall majority backed by a simple majority in all three houses. That ensures that a majority objection in a house can block a motion — and surely a majority objection from any of the three houses deserves to be heard, warrants further consideration; but it prevents a minority faction from bringing the whole system to this kind of grinding halt.

    We need a solution and we need it sooner rather than later, hence my petition here:

    Please read it, sign it if you agree, and spread the word. We must not let this go.

  7. Thank you for some clear thought. I agree, we mustn't let it go.

    The HoB need to take this forward and if necessary, convene Synod in February to reintroduce a single clause measure.

    The Arch Bishops have a part to play here. However, I know that one of the six good men, is Mr Giddings, who I understand doesn't support the legislation. How likely is he to agree to bring the legislation back, unless leant on very heavily by the Arch Bishops?

  8. Very much in agreement about the need to appreciate URGENCY

  9. Thank you very much for this wise reflection and it's attendant suggestions as to ways forward in synodical governance.

    There seem to be surprisingly few in our 'pews' that actually understand and want to connect with the process, and 'deanery synod representatives' are always the least contested, least filled appointments on any PCC I've met.

    Today (writing Sunday) alongside the shock of many that the vote went the way it did, it was concern about the process of synod that was attracting the most interest. So let us use that interest wisely, to improve the system and so not let the fiasco of the process itself to be repeated.

  10. I see that the Archbishops' Council have stressed the need for urgency in yesterday's announcement — only to then say that the matter will be parked until Synod reconvenes in July next year, albeit revisited by the HoB in a fortnight's time; but what will that bring us? An actual measure to move forward, or another tedious round of proposals and counter-proposals?

    Please, somebody: knock these guys' heads together!!!