Archbishop of Canterbury says reform bill must ensure women do not have to wait until 2025 to enter upper house
The Archbishop of Canterbury has pressed the case for fast-tracking women bishops into the House of Lords, asking a government committee for “discretion and flexibility” on the matter.
Giving evidence to the joint committee on the draft House of Lords reform bill, Dr Rowan Williams suggested a particular clause be dropped so that women bishops would not have to wait “until 2025 or something” before they were eligible for a seat in the upper house.
Clause 28.4 says that only existing Lords Spiritual can sit in the House of Lords once the first few stages of reform take effect. However, all diocesan bishops would be eligible for a seat in a fully reformed House of Lords.
Committee member Baroness Young of Hornsey observed that bishops were currently drawn from a restricted pool.
Williams, in response, said: “We have taken this on board to the extent of suggesting that clause 28.4 should drop to allow the church the flexibility when women are allowed to be ordained bishops, to fast-track the first women in that position into these benches.”
The committee invited him to elaborate on his comments regarding women bishops towards the end of his hour-long evidence.
He explained the Church of England was nearing the end of a “complex, protracted process” to allow the ordination of women as bishops.
“We’re very conscious that one of the reproaches that can be laid against the bench is that it’s not exactly representative in gender terms. As and when women become bishops, we don’t particularly want women bishops to have to wait until 2025 or something before there is any possibility of their being represented on the bench. We want the discretion and flexibility to allow a little bit of fast-tracking there.”
At the moment, 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords on a rota system, with this number falling to 12 under the bill’s proposals.
The Church of England’s General Synod is taking a final vote on women bishops next summer and the country could have its first woman bishop by 2014. Its diocesan synods have spent several months debating the finer points of legislation permitting the ordination of women as bishops.
Only two of its 44 dioceses – London and Chichester – voted against the proposals, according to Women and the Church, which has led the campaign for cultural and legislative change.
In view of the overwhelming support for Women Bishops in the Church of England Diocesan Synod meetings recently, it should not be too surprising that the Archbishop of Canterbury is seeking to fast-track the possible entry of Women Bishops into the House of Lords.
There is a movement in progress at this time to reform the make-up of the House of Lords which, however, could be completed before the outcome of General Synod’s possible agreement to ordain Women as Bishops in the Church of England is able to be confirmed. Now is the right time to propose the necessary procedure – should it become a probability as a result of the G.S. decision.
Conservatives in the Church of England, however, see the Archbishop’s statement in the House of lords as somehow negating an implicit undertaking on the part of the General Synod, not to go ahead with the ordination of Women as Bishops without what the dissenters see as ‘proper protection’ for dissentients in the way of alternative Episcopal Provision by PEVs (Provisional Episcopal Visitors).
However, as the dioceses have, as a distinct majority, declined such a specific provision, it would be unlikely for the next meeting of General synod, in 2012, to insist on such provision.
There is already, in the Motion that was put before the dioceses recently, provision for a system of accommodation for dissidents – to receive ministry from a male bishop, but only with the agreement of the local Bishop if she be a woman. This retains the tradition of bishops having jurisdiction in their own dioceses – something that certain conservatives seem not prepared to agree to.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand