It was predicted long ago, before the momentous 1992 vote to enable women to be ordained as priests in the Church of England, that there would be many parishes which would assent to the proposition, but would not want a woman priest of their own. The politically correct climate was already sufficiently sulphurous to ensure that all but the brave would lack the courage of their convictions, and be found wanting when it came to the test.
And so it proved: the majority of the Church turned out to be prepared to allow women to be ordained, while secretly nurturing the notion, Not In My Back Yard. Many of those women who have been ordained have many years of service behind them as lay ministers, and therefore considerable experience and pastoral gifts which they long to offer to the service of the Church in their new ministry. But parishes are proving strangely reluctant to appoint them.
Parishes which raised no particular objection when asked to vote on the principle of ordaining women, are proving somewhat diffident when it comes to accepting them as incumbents, or even as curates. All kinds of reasons and none are being advanced to prevent it happening. Women are short-listed but do not quite make it through the interview. “We decided to appoint a man this time round”…. Some parishes, moreover, are being asked by their Patron, or their Bishop, to accept a woman as their incumbent, and are protesting openly that they do not want one – parishes which have not indicated their opposition previously, and have not considered voting on Resolutions A and B, provided by the legislation precisely to protect the conscience of those parishes which can not accept the priestly ministry of a woman.
People in such parishes are beginning to seek advice: how can they get round the problem, when it is actually on their doorstep? The terms of the law, contained in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, are quite clear. It is not lawful to discriminate against women priests other than by means of the exceptions provided in the Measure. A parish which discriminates against a woman priest, simply because she is a woman, without taking advantage of the Resolutions in the Measure, is in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and it may find itself facing court action if it acts outside the law. There is no difference in law between a secular employer discriminating against potential women employees, and a PCC doing so – unless it has passed the relevant Resolutions under the 1993 Measure.
So, let it be stated once more, in clear and unequivocal terms: if a parish does not want a woman as its priest, it MUST pass either Resolution A, or Resolution B, or both. These are legally binding and can not be ignored by the diocesan authorities, or by the Patron. If a parish does not pass the Resolutions, it is subject to the ordinary operation of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and may not discriminate either against a male or a female appointment. A diocese does of course have some leverage in such matters. A suspended parish can have a priest in charge appointed by the Bishop without consultation with either its Patron or its parish representatives. Only by passing the Resolutions can the parish concerned declare its unwillingness to accept a woman as its priest. In a growing number of instances, parishes are being suspended contrary to the terms of the Pastoral Measure, and its accompanying Code of Practice, without the required consultation with the parties concerned, and in the absence of genuine proposals for pastoral reorganisation required by the Pastoral Measure.
No parish should accept suspension unless there are genuine grounds for it, and only when the proper procedures have been followed. A suspended parish loses virtually all of its rights in respect of the appointment of a priest, sometimes without prospect of the suspension ever being lifted. Frequently, where a parish has passed the appropriate Resolutions, and even petitioned for Extended Episcopal Ministry from a Flying Bishop, an attempt is made to persuade the PCC to hold a meeting to reconsider its decision about women priests, and the archdeacon or even suffragan bishop turns up to chair the PCC meeting.
The Church Representation Rules are quite clear about this: the Chairman of the PCC is the incumbent of the parish, and during an interregnum, the lay vice-chairman chairs the PCC. The archdeacon and even the bishop have no right in law to turn up and chair the PCC, even if invited to do so. It is important to bear in mind that once a woman priest has been appointed to a parish or benefice, as incumbent, or team vicar, or curate, even as an NSM, the PCC quite properly loses its right in law to pass any Resolution prohibiting her ministry. If it wishes to prevent such an appointment, it must have the courtesy to do so before she is licensed or instituted to the staff of the parish.
If a PCC is aware of a pending appointment of a woman priest, it must act quickly to vote on the Resolutions (for which a month’s notice is required) if it wishes to prevent it happening. A PCC which does not pass the Resolutions, or Parish Representatives appointed under the 1986 Patronage (Benefices) Measure, who attempt to prevent the appointment of a woman priest in the absence of these Resolutions, should be aware of the dangerous nature of the game which they are playing. The Equal Opportunities Commission has not yet, so far as this column knows, dealt with a parish practising unfair discrimination against a woman priest, but it is open to a rejected candidate who believes she has good grounds for doing so, to take her case to the tribunal, where she may well win substantial damages, for which the PCC or its Parish Representatives, may find themselves personally liable. Nor would there be any sympathy for those finding themselves in such a difficulty.
The provision has been made for those parishes which genuinely do not want a woman priest, to pass Resolutions which will exempt them from the general provisions of the law on Sex Discrimination. They should either pass the Resolutions or accept gracefully the ministry of the woman priest proposed to them.