Church of England women bishops: archbishops will overrule synod
The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is preparing to drive through legislation to allow women bishops even if it is rejected by the church’s governing body, the General Synod.
The synod is poised to vote again on the vexed plan next week but senior sources have told the Guardian that should the move be blocked again, there are now options being considered to force the change on the church.
Options under consideration include an immediate dissolution of the synod so that fresh elections could produce a sufficient majority by November, or even a move by the bishops in the House of Lords to introduce the legislation without synodical approval.
The dramatic intervention would be designed to pre-empt any attempts, which are already being threatened by parliament, to remove the church’s exemption from equality legislation.
“It’s quite clear that there absolutely is a plan C which the archbishops have prepared,” said one source. He explained that the plan is being called plan C because the present legislation is itself plan B, prepared after the dramatic failure of earlier legislation in 2012 which left the church in shock and led to direct threats of parliamentary intervention.
A second source, who has campaigned in favour of women’s ordination, said: “If it fails this time, it’s up to the bishops [in the Lords]. They can get rid of the synod or they can ask parliament to act directly.”
The archbishop of Canterbury will chair the synod’s debate and is expected to speak about the plans to press on with the legislation almost as soon as the result of the vote is known, in the event that women’s bishops are again opposed.
The synod could be dissolved and a freshly elected synod would convene in November to vote the measure through. The other suggestion is that the bishops in the House of Lords could bring in the legislation on their own. This would certainly pass, but might lead to a crisis within the synod and would further poison relations with the conservative evangelicals.
Supporters of women bishops are largely confident of success in Monday’s vote. They need only six of the synod’s lay members to have changed their minds since the last vote in November 2012 for the two-thirds majority they need. Five of those who earlier voted against have told the Church Times that they will approve the new legislation. They have been persuaded by the increased clarity of the revised measure. There was widespread revulsion and incomprehension which greeted the synod’s decision to vote down the proposals last time.
Opinion polls, and voting in the dioceses, show an overwhelming majority of the Church of England are in favour of women bishops. But the lay members of the synod are elected through a committee process which favours the old and the fanatical and has given a disproportionate strength to the conservative evangelicals who believe the Bible forbids women to exercise authority over men.
If the legislation passes the General Synod, parliament will rapidly approve it and it will become law in November. The first women bishops are likely to be appointed around Christmas, ending twenty years of wrangling that followed the ordination of women as priests.
The stakes are high. After the 2012 vote Tony Baldry MP, who is the Church’s liaison officer with parliament, warned that any further failure would not be tolerated. parliament would step in to legislate for women bishops whether the synod wanted it or not.
Such a move would destabilise the rickety balance of the establishment: the general synod was invented to allow the Church of England a form of self-government while ensuring that parliament maintained ultimate control of the established church. The convention is that the synod makes laws which parliament must either reject or accept but may not amend.
Unofficial polling of the synod’s lay members suggests the measure will gain the 2/3 majority it needs by four or six votes.
A spokesman for the Archbishop said “We are concentrating on getting the vote through. It would not be helpful to speculate further.”
It remains to be seen whether, or not, this move suggested by the Guardian Reporter Andrew Brown will actually have occurred to the Archbishop of Canterbury, ++Justin Welby, to manage the proposed passage of legislation in the General Synod of the Church of England that would enable Women to be ordained as Bishops in that Church. As this report itself concludes: “A spokesman for the Archbishop said “We are concentrating on getting the vote through. It would not be helpful to speculate further.”
There can, however, be little doubt that a failure to pass the required legislation at next week’s General Synod Meeting could threaten direct action by the British Parliament to intervene directly in the matter, so that such intermediary action by the ABC might be better than the Church having to face the prospect of government intervention. As the report states:
“The dramatic intervention(by the ABC) would be designed to pre-empt any attempts, which are already being threatened by parliament, to remove the church’s exemption from equality legislation”
One can only hope that those who oppose the legislation will see the need for discretion in the use of their vote – in the realisation that the current provisions would better serve their purpose than an outright ban by the government on any licence for the Church to discriminate.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand