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

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Where are we now on Women as Bishops?

Where are we now on women as bishops?

We should this summer have been looking forward to the meeting of General Synod in July and a confident vote in favour.  We had years of study, consultation and debate.  The Synod had unambiguously stated its belief in the principle and how it wanted to see it implemented.  It provided for a statutory code of practice that would safeguard the consciences of those who for theological reasons could not go along with it.  I was a member of the Synod when these debates were taking place.  They were intelligent and fair.  In the past year, 42 out of the 44 dioceses in England have approved the draft legislation.  That feels like a fair following wind.  What could deflect the church now? 

The House of Bishops!

As we know, the bishops considered the draft legislation at a recent meeting and decided to amend it.  They reckoned that the two amendments were slight and would not make much difference to the proposed measure. One of them is indeed simply a matter of clarification.  But the other is significant.  It has the effect of permanently endorsing within the church the position of those who are opposed to the ordination of women.  It does this by guaranteeing to provide male bishops and priests whose theological convictions about women’s ministry are consistent with the beliefs held by parishes that seek ordained leadership from men only. For ever…. In those parishes, whether anglo-catholic or conservative evangelical, it would be a case of ‘only men allowed’.    

What’s the problem with that?  Shouldn’t the church be generous in providing an honoured place for people who don’t agree?  Of course it should.  It always has.  Ours is a broad church where we differ about many issues: how to read the Bible, what we believe about the sacraments, what we think about human sexuality and so on.  But we don’t legislate around those matters.  We live with difference on the basis of common faith, mutual trust and our sharing in the sacraments.  It’s called koinonia, ‘communion’. 

But the bishops’ amendment privileges the issue of women bishops and priests by saying: unlike any of the other things we don’t agree about, on this we intend to give legal protection to the minority who cannot come with us on this journey.  That would have the effect of disabling women bishops themselves by limiting their authority.  So inequality would be built into the college of bishops because its male and female members would not have the same powers or freedoms.  That would institutionalise discrimination at the very top.  And it would send out the message that the Church of England did not have complete conviction to say ‘yes’ to women bishops and take the consequences of that decision.  It would be a half-hearted compromise.

There’s something else.  How could the House of Bishops contemplate tampering with draft legislation that had so convincingly been approved by the Synod itself and by 42 of the 44 dioceses?  That is an overwhelming consensus.  We all thought it would be more than enough to take it back unchanged to the Synod in July for the final decision to be made.

I am sure that the bishops were acting with the best of intentions.  They wanted to sugar a pill that some would find very bitter to swallow. But good process is at stake here.  We often repeat the mantra that the Church of England is ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’.  The role of governance is to hold and shape the operation of power and authority in an organisation, to ensure that decisions are made properly and due processes are observed.  This is what the General Synod exists for.  It is there to make sure that church decisions are made in a way that is transparent, accountable and can be trusted.  It safeguards integrity.  The Bishops can’t act independently of the Synod’s wishes any more than I as a cathedral dean can act independently of the chapter I chair. Leadership in any organisation needs the checks and balances of good governance.

It feels as though the House of Bishops has exerted force majeure and imposed its will on the Synod.  As a rank and file cleric, I am dismayed that my elected representatives have not been consulted about it.  And because of the compromise now built into the draft measure, I am not sure I would want to vote for it.  I am not sure that Parliament with its care about equality would support it in this form. 

I posted a blog a few months ago with the title ‘Women Bishops – Let’s Do it!’ (You'll find it on this site.) It’s not too late for the Bishops to withdraw the amendment.  I hope they will.  If they do, then we can take this great step in the conviction that it is biblical, that it is catholic, and that it is just and right.  But let’s not do it at all unless we can embrace it with confidence and joy. 

For a careful statement on the Bishops’ amendment see the statement by WATCH at



  1. It puzzles me that in every other aspect of British life there can be no discrimination, whether gender, race, disability etc so why it the debate even taking place? Surely any job or post should be given on merit. The actual Head of the Church of England has managed quite nicely for the past 60 years!

    1. Some believe the Church should be 'in' the world, but not 'of' the world.

  2. A very interesting read, stimulating some valuable thoughts.

  3. I wonder if I may beg to differ with the view expressed by my brother, but much more senior, dean?

  4. Thank you Michael for your clarity about this. And Mark, I think the difficulty is that there has been so much compromise already on the part of those who believe God calls women and men alike. And this is not just Watch; this is men and women who are normally conciliatory at heart saying we surely must not in conscience institutionalise sexism in the canons of the church.

  5. Sorry Mark, but I can't really see what the House of Bishops did as 'valiant'. As Michael reminds us, we are episcopally led and synodically governed.

    What the HoB did was to set aside synodical governance because it didn't return the right answer. Instead we were treated to an epic display of 'Father Knows Best'. It was a failure of vision - because they could not deal with what Diocesan Synods had sent back to them - and a failure of leadership, because they could not lead us to a place where the majority feel able to follow them.

    I hope even at this stage the situation can be redeemed.

  6. This is the clearest, and least heated, explanation I have seen of what has been happening, so thank-you Decanus Borealis.

    I thought at the last General Synod that there was a hint of menace in the idea of returning the draft to the House of Bishops for further tinkering. This would have been understandable in a hastily cobbled together draft but, as you say, the Measure was no such thing. If only it had been passed there and then!

    But we are where we are. It is quite difficult to see, procedurally, how the situation can be redeemed. It would, I think, not happen in a secular organisation, but if the House of Bishops could find it in their collective hearts to withdraw the amendment, then this would provide a solution. Otherwise, either the measure will not pass, which would cause uproar in the dioceses or it will pass, but be rejected in Parliament.

    If Parliament sends it back, asking for the offending amendments to be removed, it will bring the Church into further disrepute. In its latest statement, the Church of England opposes proposed legislation on same sex marriages, threatening unilateral disestablishment if it becomes law. But the current draft Measure may invite suggestions of disestablishment from the nation.

    I wrote a blog post about the need for a deus ex machina in this situation. What we really need, of course, is not so much a machine as intervention by the Almighty. Let us pray...

  7. The late Herbert Hensley Henson, sometime Dean and subsequently Bishop of Durham, certainly did not approve the ordination of women for the Church of England. Nor, indeed, did he ever, whilst Dean, think to refer to himself as a 'rank and file cleric'.
    His comments would surely have added some great literary highlights to the whole prolonged sorry saga.

  8. The worst of the various possible outcomes is that General Synod passes the draft legislation with the Bishops' amendments and Parliament rejects it. This would be immensely damaging to the C. of E.'s ability to communicate the gospel to the nation as it would further confirm in popular thinking that discrimination against women is institutionally embedded in the church - which sadly it seems it is.

    Thank you for such a clear and helpful post.

    1. This appears to be a real possibility - have you listened to MP Ben Bradshaw's wonderfully coherent interview on Radio 4's Yesterday in Parliament? It is as much for parliament's ecclesiastical committee to hold the bishops to account as vice versa and he seems to recognise that they have gone against the clear will of the majority of English Anglicans.

  9. Thank you for both what you have said and the graciousness with which you have said it. The question for me is - how can we get the Bishops to hear and respond in a way that averts the crisis in time for July Synod?

  10. Was the House of Bishops clever enough to realise that the amendments would effectively split the vote of those in support and cause the measure to fail, or else be kicked into touch for another few years? Or they were not clever enough to have predicted the consequences of their actions - meddling with legislation the overwhelming number of dioceses had already approved.

    The headlines will say that the all male house of bishops have defied the expressed wish of the dioceses,synod and the overwhelming majority of regular church goers. Let us hope their dioceses are prepared for the substantial fall in revenue that will surely follow.