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