Jonathan Redvers Harris looks at the Blackburn Report on the way the Act of Synod has been “working out as a matter of pastoral practice”

IN A REPORT which contains much that is commendable – for example, the material on “Reception’ and the caution about speaking of two “integrities” in Chapter 2, and the acknowledgement that the PEV’s role in petitioning parishes extends to concern for the temporalities as well as the spiritualities (para.5.20) – there are, it seems to me, two main areas of concern. Both have to do with a certain amount of “spin’, gloss, or simple rewriting, of the Act’s history and as to what it actually provides.

Rewriting the history of the Act

Time and again it is forgotten that the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 – the Measure which enabled women to be ordained as priests by Canon promulgated by the General Synod, and which provided for bishops to make “no go area’ declarations and parishes and cathedrals to pass Resolutions A and/or B – was the only legislation in mind. Only when the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament indicated profound unease about the degree of protection for those opposed to the change, were assurances then made of better safeguards – assurances which then enabled the Measure to complete its journey to the statute book. Those assurances were translated into the Act of Synod. So, although the Act of Synod has a lesser legislative status than the Measure, being morally-binding rather than of statutory force, it was in effect legislation after the event – making good some of the deficiencies of the proposed Measure itself. Hence, the provision in section 2 of the Measure, concerning episcopal declarations – overtaken by the Act – was effectively already a dead letter before it received the royal assent.

But Blackburn gives a different ‘spin’ – suggesting, almost, that the Act was intended all along. The Measure, says the Report “clearly laid the foundation” (para.8.5) for the Act of Synod and its unifying work. The Act of Synod, we are told, ‘was the result of careful theological reflection by the House of Bishops’ (para.3.3). Indeed in that third chapter, entitled The History and Main Features of the Act of Synod, only one mention is made of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, when it is said that the Act of Synod’s arrangements were widely welcomed and formed

an important constituent in the balanced package of arrangements surrounding the ordination of women legislation which Synod passed, the Ecclesiastical Committee found expedient, and Parliament approved (para. 3.8)

Members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, and others closely involved, may want to give another angle on this “history” of the Act!

Rewriting the wording of the Act

While Blackburn rightly stresses the needs for precision – for instance, stressing that PEV’s have extended (not “alternative’) pastoral care and sacramental ministry (section 5(3) of the Act) – the Report does at the same time suffer from yielding to the temptation to rewrite, not only the historical context of the Act, but also the wording itself of this subsidiary legislation. This is evident at two significant points: first, on the issue of the three levels of episcopal arrangements (diocesan, regional and provincial); and, secondly, the gloss which the Report gives on the need for the PCC to review, once every five years, the working of the arrangements following the petition.

First, the three levels of episcopal arrangements. Stressing the role of the diocesan bishop as ordinary, the Report asserts that the Act “expressly states that the provision of Provincial Episcopal Visitors is to be considered only once diocesan and regional arrangements have been found to be unworkable or impracticable” (2.12). But that is not quite what the Act says. What the Act actually does is, first, to introduce the three types of arrangements which “maybe made” – diocesan, regional and provincial: section 2. In section 3 the bishop is required to make diocesan arrangements “so far as possible. In section 4 diocesan bishops acting jointly in a region are required to make regional arrangements ‘whenever possible”. Finally, in section 5, the archbishops are required to appoint PEVs – the provincial arrangements. So, yes, the Report is right to speak about there being “an intended order of preference” (para.4.1) in these three levels of arrangements, but to claim that the PEVs only come into play once the first two levels have been found “unworkable or impracticable” is straying beyond the Act. The Report is, of course, concerned that diocesan and regional arrangements may sometimes have been overlooked too quickly, in favour of provincial arrangements, but this order of preference in the Act should not be made to work overtime; it is couched in terms of “where possible”, not in a overly-rigid hierarchy.

The second area where there is a tendency to re-word the Act is more worrying. This flows from the Report’s recommendation that the “requirement to review petitions after five years” should follow the guidelines set out in Appendix 4 to the Report (para.6.9). Appendix 4 sets out a consultation process involving all members of the church electoral roll to review the arrangements in force following a petition.

Again, the Working Party, with respect, would have benefited from a closer look at the wording of the Act – an Act which as Blackburn reminds us, was carefully constructed. Had the framers of this subsidiary legislation intended to say something like, “no later than six months before the expiration of five years from the presentation of a petition by the PCC under the Act, the PCC shall review the decision to present such a petition in the following way [by consultation with members of the church electoral roll, a special parochial church meeting, or whatever]” then they were clearly free to do so. Yet they did not. Again, as the Report is at pains to stress, the language of the Act has been carefully drafted. What the Act actually says, in section 9, is that the PCC “shall review the working of any arrangements in force” pursuant to the presenting of a petition, “at least once in every period of five years.” All that a PCC is required to do, under the Act, at any stage in a five year period – perhaps in year 3, for example (not necessarily at the end of year 5) – is to review, not the decision to petition, nor even the arrangements in operation, but the working of the arrangements So, for example, the regional arrangements may not be working particularly satisfactorily, or there may be a PEV in place but there are aspects which are not working smoothly, and this duty upon the PCC gives the members a chance to review such matters. No resolution, no decision, is strictly needed – for the decision to petition is not “up for grabs” again – and certainly there is no question of any consultation with the entire electoral roll membership. If it is wished to withdraw the petition then the Act provides as to how this should be done.

Jonathan Redvers Harris is Vicar of Houghton Regis in the diocese of St Albans.