Synod endorses new women-bishops package
Synod members applaud during the debate
ALMOST exactly a year after the fall of the draft Measure to enable women to become bishops, described at the time as a “train crash”, the General Synod has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new package to put the legislation “back on track”. It includes a brief Measure, and a House of Bishops declaration.
After a debate on Wednesday morning, only eight members voted against a motion to welcome the proposals, and 25 recorded abstentions; 378 voted in favour.
Speaking at a press conference after the vote, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who chaired the steering committee that produced the new package, said: “The train is on the track and moving forward, and we know there are some stations to pass through along the way, but we can see the end of this particular journey.”
It was significant, he said, that the person chairing the debate had not been able to call on a balance of speakers for and against the motion, because so few had stood to speak against it.
During the debate, Prebendary David Houlding. Vicar of All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London, and a member of the Catholic Group on the General Synod, said: “What we have in front of us works, and works for all of us, no matter where we are coming from. . . The moment I have been waiting for has arrived.” It was a “pleasure”, he said, to follow Christina Rees, a member of WATCH, in the debate: “The battle is surely over. Let’s get on with the mission.”
Mrs Rees said that the legislative package before the Synod now was better than the one that had been debated in November.
“If Christina Rees and David Houlding are happy, then I am happy,” said the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, who described the progress since last November as “nothing short of miraculous”.
Canon Rosie Harper, diocese of Oxford, warned the General Synod during the debate that it was regarded as “weird” by the outside world. “I’m struck by the sheer weirdness of a community arguing about discrimination in the 21st century. People don’t care enough to be angry, but they do see us as weird. If we are serious about our mission, we have to stop being weird.”
Bishop Langstaff said at the press conference that the Church should not be “too hung up” on how it was perceived by society. “It’s not the be-all and end-all. But we have a particularly calling to seek to be the Church that relates to the life of the nation. So how society is perceiving us is not the most important thing, but it’s not unimportant.”
He denied that pressure from the Government was responsible for the shift since November, although he admitted that it might have “sharpened minds”.
While he was “hugely encouraged” by the vote, he warned against “complacency”. There was “a lot of work still to be done”. People who had voted to send the Measure for revision, “may or may not” vote for it at the Final Approval stage.
Some conservative Evangelicals spoke against the proposals during the debate. The Revd David Banting of the diocese of Chelmsford described them as “inappropriate”.
Susie Leafe (Truro), who is the director of Reform, said that she wished she could say “All is well,” but she could not. “We claim this is designed to enable all to flourish; yet my church can only flourish when we abandon our theological convictions and accept a woman as a chief pastor,” she said. Even if her parish asked for another bishop, this decision would lie in the hands of a woman, she said. For the sake of appearing in step with the times, “We are risking churches who are sending large numbers of men for ordination and whose congregations are generally younger.”
Several speakers commented that they could not have imagined, a year ago, that the Synod would be in the position it was in today. Bishop Langstaff, speaking after the vote, said that the fact that it was due to “the grace of God”.
He also suggested that the approach used by the steering committee, entailing mediation and facilitated discussion, could be a model for other organisations dealing with conflict. Asked why it had taken so long for the General Synod to reach this point, he said that the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, well-versed in conflict resolution, had been pivotal.
He acknowledged that ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics and members of the Orthodox Church might become “more sharp” as a result of the move. Prebendary Houlding had said during the debate that the proposals left open “the ecumenical avenues of conversation and relationship” with the “wider part of Christendom”. He explained: “There remains something within our polity that the greater part of the Universal Church can recognise as consistent with their practice and discipline.”
Several members cautioned during the debate against meddling with the package. Anne Martin (Guildford) was glad that there were no amendments, and expressed her hope that the package would go to the House of Bishops for clarification and not for alteration. “We have a consensus, but if we start finding that what we have agreed on is . . . changed, then that consensus is fragile.” The package was “the best solution we could have found”.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Synod went on to take the first consideration stage of the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure and the Draft Amending Canon No.33.
The English Anglican newspaper ‘Church Times’ offers this opinion piece on the proceedings of the current session of the Church of England General Synod debate on future legislation that will allow women to be ordained bishops in the Church.
Although there are further hurdles to be negotiated – mainly on the process that will allow dissenting parishes access to a male bishop for episcopal ministry, it is the fervent hope of supporters of the legislation that this will not overlook the need for a woman diocesan bishop to actually authorise the provision being made in her diocese.
The fact of the ‘overwhelming approval’ of the basic measure so far, cannot but be most encouraging to those who have prayed and fought for a long time now for women’s ministry and leadership in the Church of England to be recognised and implemented officially.
One prays for the blessing of the Holy Spirit on the further negotiations.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand