Female bishops: this is about the church’s attitude to all women
Synod is now faced with voting for an amended measure that discriminates against people who believe in equality
For those outside the Church of England, it can be difficult to follow the road we have travelled in our attempts to ensure that women, as well as men, can become bishops. As our lawmaking body, the General Synod, gathers again in York, it is as well to remind ourselves of that journey. In 2000 synod debated a motion on the possibility of appointing women as bishops. Of course, elsewhere in the Anglican communion, other churches had already addressed the issue, with the first woman being elected as a bishop in the United States in 1988, and the second woman being elected in the same year as a bishop in New Zealand.
The 2000 motion was passed and a commission was set up to examine the nature of episcopacy. Four years later it produced a major report, which set out various options but which made no recommendations. Then in 2005 synod agreed to remove the legal barriers to having women as bishops. The next year, synod again debated the issue, agreeing that having women as bishops was “consonant” with the faith of our church.
A group was commissioned to start drafting the legislation and two years later produced a draft measure that would make it possible, at last, for women to be appointed as bishops.
Yet further debates followed. But the issue became not “if” women were bishops, but “when” and on what terms. Suggestions about the terms ranged from setting up an entire province for those people in the church who didn’t want women to be bishops, to a special society, where neither female priests nor bishops would be allowed to minister.Synod repeatedly rejected anything that would result in a two-tier episcopate – with men in one and women in the other, and in 2010, after two years of careful scrutiny, the Draft Women Bishops Measure was sent to the dioceses to be debated. Forty two out of 44 dioceses in the Church of England passed the draft measure.
So much for the history lesson, and though painstakingly slow and tortuous, so far so good. However, in May the House of Bishops met, and, under the standing orders that permit them to make last-minute amendments, they passed two amendments in the measure. One is a minor point of clarification about the authority and derivation of episcopal authority. The other amendment threatens to derail the entire process.
Synod is now faced with voting for a measure that includes a clause (clause 5.1), that could have the effect of requiring bishops to provide, not just a male bishop for those parishes that request one, but a male bishop who shares their views about women. Arrangements for those who do not accept women’s ordained ministry will be provided in a code of practice, but the bishops’ amendment would put such arrangements, with all they imply about women, into English law.
It would have the effect of discriminating against people who believe that men and women are equal. It could also be open to legal challenge if a parish didn’t accept the male bishop offered to them instead of their female bishop. Part of the problem is, no one really knows what the full legal implications could be.
Synod now has a difficult choice – pass the measure with the offensive clause, or vote to adjourn the debate and send it back to the bishops, asking them to think again. If passed, this legislation will become the law of the land, so we need to get it right.
At heart, this isn’t about women being allowed to exercise episcopal authority, it’s about what the established church is saying about women: all women. With more than 5,000 women having been ordained as priests, the church itself 70% female, and with Queen Elizabeth as the supreme governor, perhaps it’s time we passed legislation that can be seen as genuinely good news.
With Christina Rees, I believe that what the English General Synod does – or does not do – to implement the Ordination of Women as Bishops in the Church of England this coming Monday, will signal to a large degree the official view of that Church – the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion – on the place of ministries of Women in the Church.
Dissidents (who strongly object to Women having any leading role in the sacramental and teaching life of the Church) who form a minority of Church membership, have been given by the House of Bishops, a unique ‘escape clause’, which would enshrine legislation in the Church of England allowing them to avoid - not only the ministry of Women Bishops, but also the ministry of Male Bishops who accept Women in their equal complementary status as Bishops in the Church.
All of this, to those of us who have experienced, and who deeply value, the ministry of Women as both Clergy and Bishops in our churches, seems somewhat patriarchal and not a good look for the Church of England.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand