Final hurdle for women bishops to overcome
Church of England General Synod meets amid hopes of swift end to years of wrangling over women bishops – but row looms over the precise meaning of ‘trust’
By John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor
8:30AM GMT 09 Feb 2014
Hopes of an end to the Church of England’s 40-year battle over women bishops could face a last-minute challenge this week amid wrangling over ordination services and an argument about the definition of a single word.
Members of the General Synod will gather in London tomorrow for a three-day meeting that should speed a historic change to ecclesiastical law through its main legislative stages.
If they succeed, the change could be given final approval as early as this summer. It could then receive Royal Assent in time for England’s first women bishops to be appointed before the end of this year.
But an influential group of traditionalists, who largely orchestrated the defeat of previous plans for women bishops, said behind-the scenes discussions had still failed to allay all of their concerns.
The Reform evangelical group, which is seen as representing the puritan tradition, believes that the Bible teaches that men should be “head” of the family and the Church.
The new plans are meant to be simpler than previously and hinge on informal arrangements involving higher levels of “trust”.
The Synod gave overwhelming support to the plan when it last met in November but the discussions this week will determine whether the legislation ultimately has enough support.
In November’s debate opponents said they would allow the majority to proceed with their blessing in order to preserve church unity.
But Susie Leafe, director of Reform, said there was a list of unanswered questions about how the compromise arrangement would work.
The dispute hinges on the meaning of a single word – “entrusted”. Under the new plan, a woman bishop would be required to make special arrangements for traditionalist parishes that want to opt out of her authority.
Draft guidelines say simply that she could bring in a male bishop to minister to that parish and “entrust” some of her responsibilities to him.
Reform asked for a footnote explaining what that would mean in practice but the current bishops decided against making any additions.
Mrs Leafe said the refusal did not bode well for hopes of securing agreement from all sides. “I think it is a sign of how complicated this so-called ‘simpler’ measure is becoming and I think people are recognising that it isn’t as simple as it seems,” she said.
“It is very nice to say ‘trust us’, but as questions are being asked about what that will look like, answers are not forthcoming – nervousness is the mood.”
Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics have also voiced concern over possible ordination procedures when women eventually become archbishops of Canterbury or York.
But supporters of the group have signalled that they would be willing to resolve the issue in discussions rather than hold up the legislation.
Hilary Cotton, the chairman of Women and The Church, which has led the long campaign for women priests and then women bishops, said the overwhelming mood was positive and she was hopeful that last-minute hurdles would be overcome.
But she said that there were still questions over whether there will be enough votes to speed the legislation through as quickly as hoped.
“Although I think the legislation, the whole set of arrangements, is robust it still feels like we are walking across a tightrope in terms of votes.”
Much depends on this crucial meeting of the Church of England General Synod today, Monday, 10th February, 2014. Not only the question of whether – or not – women will be ordained as bishops in the Church will be at issue but, perhaps more importantly: what authority will a Woman diocesan Bishop have over people in her own diocese who do not believe she should have episcopal office in the Church of England.
With bated breath, the Anglican world awaits the outcome of this Synod. My prayer is that, if ordained, women should have the same parameters of episcopal ministry as men.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand