Church of England re-advances plans for women bishops

By Matthew Davies
Posted Jul 8, 2013
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addresses the Church of England's General Synod, meeting in York July 8, during a debate on the next steps towards enabling women to become bishops. (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addresses the Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in York July 8, during a debate on the next steps towards enabling women to become bishops. (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

[Episcopal News Service] The Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in York, has resumed the debate on women bishops, calling for the creation of a steering committee that would prepare draft legislation in time for synod’s next meeting in November.

A motion passed July 8 also asks that a draft Act of Synod, or draft declaration, making provisions for those who as a matter of theological conviction are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops, be prepared for synod’s February 2014 meeting. The motion passed with 319 voting in favor, 84 against and 22 abstentions.

The July 6-9 sessions are the first time synod has met since last November, when previous legislation to enable women to become bishops narrowly failed to secure the required majority of votes in all three houses (laity, clergy and bishops), despite a 73 percent majority overall. The legislation failed in the House of Laity by six votes.

Since that vote, the church’s House of Bishops has met three times in an attempt to work out a swift and effective plan for women to become bishops. A working group, established last December by the House of Bishops, prepared a report in which it set out four possible options for the shape of the new legislation. The bishops, meeting in May, decided to recommend “Option One,” as “the simplest possible legislation” to make it lawful for women to become bishops.

(A report from the House of Bishops and the working group to General Synod is available here.

The synod accepted two of nine proposed amendments, that were debated on July 8.

One amendment put forth by Bishop Trevor Willmott of the Diocese of Dover calls for the inclusion of a “mandatory grievance procedure for parishes in which diocesan bishops are required to participate.”

Willmott’s amendment is likely to appease some traditionalists who, during the July 8 debate, said that Option One actually made fewer provisions than would have been available under the previous legislation that failed last November. Supporters of the motion said they were eager for the legislation to proceed without delay to enable women to become bishops by 2015 at the earliest.

The other carried amendment, proposed by Keith Malcouronne, a lay synod member from the Diocese of Guildford, urges that “the process of facilitated conversations continue to be used at significant points in the formulation and consideration of the draft legislation.”

On Saturday, July 6, facilitated small-group conversations provided synod members with an opportunity to engage in reflection and discussion on the topic of women in the episcopate. Many synod members said the conversations had proved to be a helpful as they prepared for the July 8 debate and vote.

The July 8 legislation, which was drafted by the House of Bishops during its May meeting, reaffirmed its commitment to admitting women to the episcopate “as a matter of urgency.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby reminded the synod that “this is not about whether but about how … The approach before us is a radical way forward…provides the possibility of building trust, creates space for imagination,” and commits “to ordaining women on exactly the same basis as men and both flourishing together in all parts of the church.”

Bishop Nigel Stock of the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich served as chair of the working group that recommended the four options.

Ahead of a five-hour debate, he said synod needed to remember that the vote does not represent the final stage for decisions. Rather it will “provide a framework for further creativity.”

He said two rounds of facilitated conversations held earlier this year that included many Church of England members with differing viewpoints had played a major role in informing the bishops’ legislation proposed to synod.

A majority of the house favored Option One for its clarity and simplicity, he said.

Stock also acknowledged there had been “profound mystification and unhappiness” to last November’s decision, and therefore agreed that it was important to get the steering committee set up this month “to ensure that we can complete all stages in 2015.”

Bishop Pete Broadbent of the Diocese of Willesden received prolonged applause when he suggested a new process by which synod would forgo the need to have a second committee which could revise the steering committee’s proposal before it gets presented to synod.

He said the steering committee might include more people than is currently proposed but that that group would be “given the chance to go away in facilitated discussion and come out with legislation that has universal approval from all there. It’s a risky strategy as there may be people who say I can’t do this…[but] it’s a different way of framing what we do and it might just work.”

Broadbent said that the revision committee had been “the toxic part of the process last time,” saying that it is there for nitpicking. With his proposal, the legislation would come straight to revision stage in synod with the full support and ownership of the steering committee. “That makes the moral authority of something that comes to synod much stronger than it usually does,” he said. “Let’s reframe how we do it…and we might avoid the train crash.”

Several subsequent speakers, including Welby, offered their support for Broadbent’s proposal.

Bishop Christopher Lowson of the Diocese of Lincoln said that many people were “destabilized by the action in November. The question I’ve been pondering was how God was present during a bitter disappointment. Rather than be angry…we’d do better to look for God’s providence in the process…The grace of God is available to us as we work together for his will…I hope we can work together to begin the journey again but in a different way… It’s a big task because there have been years of suspicion…In the end we shall be in a better place…with an ordained ministry that can be celebrated by all…It will build our capacity to manage diversity with respect.”

The Rev. Roderick Thomas of the Diocese of Exeter said that he was speaking for the majority of evangelicals in saying that he did not want to find “ourselves in the position we were in last November again. We do not want to have to block the clear will of the majority if this synod and church to see women bishops in place.”

Thomas said that during one of the facilitated discussions in which he’d participated earlier this year “we agreed that any future legislation should be simpler and sensitive. But this option has none of this. There isn’t the scope for going more widely. If we pass the motion as stands…then we will not have achieved that objective of mutual flourishing, because instead of allowing people of my integrity to flourish in the church there will be a sense of gnawing anxiety on our part. Ask synod not to start us down a track that is going to lead to confrontation. We want to enable you to vote in legislation, and that will only be done by passing one of the helpful amendments that opens up the opportunity on the face of the measure and in the canons.”

The Rev. Karen Hutchinson of the Diocese of Guildford said that she supported Option One unamended because she said it feels like a pre-nuptial agreement in making provisions in case something fails. “This is not only a diversion from our work as witness to the love of God but has the potential to cause more damage to out relationships,” she said. “I want to remain part of the same church with those who do not recognize my ministry. That is not easy…but by the grace of God it is possible to love each other even when we disagree…Please let us put our energy into building relationships that will sustain us in the journey ahead…This is a chance for a fresh start, a chance to work in a different, more relational way, which will be far, far healthier.”

Meanwhile, Anthony Berry, a lay member from the Diocese of Chester, objected that of the nine speakers who’d already been called to the podium, only one was a woman.

Twenty-seven year old Rebecca Swinson, an ex-officio member of synod and a member of the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Council, said that “women as priests for me is normal, it’s not new.”

“I’ve been listening to you all wrangling over this for 27 years,” she said, although she admitted she’d not paid much attention when she was a one year old. “Option One is the easiest thing for me to explain in the pub. It offers quite a good opportunity for those of us who are perhaps not as embedded in the debate…We do need to have something that isn’t as based in law…Finally, I hope that my children will hear a different normality to me and they will not hear the words ‘women bishops’ again because they will see them.”

The full text of the final resolution passed July 8 by the Church of England’s General Synod follows.

‘That this Synod:

(a) reaffirm its commitment to admitting women to the episcopate as a matter of urgency;

(b) instruct the Appointments Committee to appoint this month a Steering Committee to be in charge of the draft legislation required to that end;

(c) instruct the Business Committee to arrange for the First Consideration stage for that draft legislation to be taken at the November 2013 group of sessions, so that the subsequent stages can follow the timetable set out in paragraph 141 of the annex to GS 1886; and

(d) instruct the Steering Committee to prepare the draft legislation on the basis described in paragraphs 79-88 of the annex to GS 1886 as ‘option one’ with the addition of a mandatory grievance procedure for parishes in which diocesan bishops are required to participate and invite the House of Bishops to bring to the Synod for consideration at the February 2014 group of sessions a draft Act of Synod or draft declaration to be made by the House to accompany the draft legislation.’

(e) urge that “the process of facilitated conversations continue to be used at significant points in the formulation and consideration of the draft legislation.”

History of women’s ordained ministry
In July 2005, 13 years after agreeing to ordain female priests, the General Synod began its steady course toward allowing them to become bishops when it passed a motion to remove the legal obstacles to ordaining women as bishops.

In July 2006, the synod called for the practical and legislative arrangements of admitting women to the episcopate to be explored. It also called for the formation of a legislative drafting group to prepare a draft measure and amending canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles.

At its July 2008 group of sessions, synod agreed that it was the “wish of its majority … for women to be admitted to the episcopate” and affirmed that “special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests.”

General Synod voted in February 2009 to send a draft measure on women becoming bishops to a revision committee so it could rework the legislation.

The revision committee met 16 times beginning in May 2009 and considered 114 submissions from synod members and a further 183 submissions from others. In May 2010, the committee published a 142-page report, which offered a detailed analysis of the draft legislation in time for the July 2010 synod debate and vote.

The July 2010 synod backed legislation that paved the way for women to become bishops and referred the measure to diocesan synods for their consideration. A majority of diocesan synods needed to approve the measure for it to return to General Synod.

From July 2010 to February 2012, 42 of the 44 diocesan synods throughout England approved the legislation supporting female bishops.

The February 2012 General Synod rejected a bid to provide greater concessions for those opposed to female bishops. Those concessions essentially were an amendment to the legislation that would have enabled two bishops to exercise episcopal functions within the same jurisdiction by way of “co-ordinating” their ministries.

On Nov. 20, 2012, General Synod rejected legislation that would have enabled women to become bishops. The legislation, called a measure, required a two-thirds majority in all three houses of laity, clergy and bishops at General Synod, the church’s main governing body meeting at Church House in Westminster. The measure passed the houses of bishops and clergy, but failed in the House of Laity by 6 votes. The laity voted 132 in favor, 74 against, with 0 abstentions; clergy 148 in favor, 45 against, with 0 abstentions; and bishops 44 in favor, 3 against, with 2 abstentions.

The long path towards accepting women’s ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference called (via Resolutions 47-52) for the diaconate of women to be restored “formally and canonically,” adding that it should be recognized throughout the communion.

The first female priest in the communion, the Rev. Li Tim-Oi, was ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. Due to outside pressure, she resigned her license, but not her holy orders, following World War II. In 1971, the Rev. Jane Hwang and the Rev. Joyce Bennett were ordained priests in the Diocese of Hong Kong, though their ministries were not recognized in many parts of the Anglican Communion.

In 1974, there was an “irregular” ordination of 11 women in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which officially authorized women’s priestly ordination two years later.

Bishop Barbara Harris, now retired, was elected bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in 1988 and became the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop after her consecration and ordination in 1989.

The Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson made history in 1989 when she was elected bishop of the Diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand, and became the first woman to serve as a diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion.

The Rt. Rev. Mary Adelia McLeod, who was ordained a priest in 1980, was consecrated in 1993 as bishop of the Diocese of Vermont, becoming the first female diocesan bishop in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. She retired in 2001.

The Rt. Rev. Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera became the first female Anglican bishop in Latin America when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Church of Cuba in June 2007.

The Rev. Ellinah Ntombi Wamukoya on Nov. 17, 2012 was ordained as bishop of Swaziland and became the first female bishop in any of the 12 African Anglican provinces.

The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women first were ordained to the diaconate. More than 5,000 women have been ordained as priests in England since 1994 and today they represent nearly 40 percent of all clergy.

— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (5)

  1. S. E. Colburn says:

    It’s about time the Brits got this thing right! Equality for women in the Church leadership is one of the FEW areas where the ECUSA is more progressive than the COE. I will be praying that an acceptable compromise for all parties involved will be reached, this time.

  2. Bob McCloskey says:

    The extreme obsession of the C of E with parliamentary process defies the imagination. How in God’s name a QUARTERLY gathering of all these folk for an extended period of time and expense is beyond me. We in the TEC think that our triennial General Convention is difficult to justify. Thank God we do not have to live by this absurd waste of time and distraction from the true mission of the church. Yes, we spend outlandish time and money attempting to invent the wheel for ourselves but at least we are not beset by this apparent love of parliamentary procedure, repetition and extravagance which the C of E employs in allegedly facing the real issues confronting its church.. Somebody needs to call all of this to a halt.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      You spaketh a parable Bob. Even in TEC we do not need to have General Convention putting the entire life of the Church up on the chopping/tinkering block every 3 years. Perhaps at one time – in days of limited travel/communication it made sense – but now there is truly no reason for Convention to meet any more often than every 5-6 years. Most – except those who live to go to it – dread its coming because its a festival of Type A personalities who all want their moment to set things aright. Meanwhile, back in the pew we are shrinking down past 680,000 ASA and there is no coherent strategy demanded or placed to deal with it. Our problem is not organization. The problem of this Foreign & Domestic Mission Society is too much energy-consuming structure that agendas a wish list other than to take the message of Christ and Him crucified to 300 million people.

  3. Bob McCloskey says:

    My angst/frustration is with the obsession of parliamentary game-playing, NOT the issue of women priests and bishops – many of whom I count as close friends and one-time colleagues in parish ministry as well. The parliamentary obsession is clearly in my mind the primary machine for kicking this can down the road, but time has run out!

  4. Stewart David Wigdor says:

    Come and dwell in our hearts
    as You place us in our Heavenly Father’s Love
    freed from sin
    free to reign on earth
    declare us now Jesus is Love
    what miracle You place your Church on earth
    for us to reach Heaven with our souls
    come and rule life now Divine
    joyous Revelation Jesus as love.

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