Jonathan Redvers Harris revisits the Act of Synod

Once again, it seems there is a need to set out what the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 actually provides, and to try to lay to rest some of the wilder ideas in circulation at the moment.

Where did the Act come from?

Although an Act of Synod is not of the same statutory pedigree as a Measure, it is nonetheless of considerable moral and persuasive force as a form of subsidiary or ‘quasi’ legislation. In the present context it is inseparably entwined with the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 because the Act enshrines assurances made to Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee. Without these assurances – of better protection for those of Her Majesty’s subjects with reservations about, or opposed to, the change – the main legislation would not have made it to the statute book. The Act is part of the package. It is neither up for rescission – nor rewriting.

What does the Act provide?

The Act provides for ‘practical pastoral arrangements’ for each diocese. There are three types of arrangements for ‘appropriate episcopal ministry’. First there are diocesan arrangements, made by the diocesan bishop ‘so far as possible’, for care and oversight of clergy and parishes (for example, a traditionalist retired bishop living in the diocese). Secondly, regional arrangements may be made ‘whenever possible’ for bishops to act jointly in nominating one or more bishops (a reliable suffragan, for example, from within that region). And thirdly, under provincial arrangements, a diocesan bishop may ask a provincial episcopal visitor (PEV) to provide ‘extended pastoral care and sacramental ministry’.

Looking at the way these levels of episcopal arrangements are set out in the Act, it appears that there is an intended order of preference – so that diocesan arrangements are considered first, then a regional solution sought, and finally the PEV option adopted. It is not, however, a rigidly hierarchical structure of levels. Throughout it needs to be remembered that ‘each PEV shall act as spokesman and adviser for those who are opposed’: section 5(4). Often, the extended care of the PEV will be immediately the only practicable way forward.

How does the Act work?

The process begins with a decision of the Parochial Church Council (PCC) to petition the diocesan bishop for ‘appropriate episcopal duties’ under the Act. This – popularly called ‘Resolution C’ – may or may not result in provision for a PEV. For such a decision to be made then either or both Resolution A (no woman celebrant or absolver) and Resolution B (no woman incumbent) under the main Measure must already be in place. There is no precise form of wording for this decision, but there are formalities to be observed. The PCC ought to be aware that the House of Bishops’ Code of Practice (January 1994) urges the need ‘to consult widely in the parish’. More recently, Guidelines for Good Practice from the House of Bishops (January 2001) recommends consultation of everyone on the church electoral roll. This, however, is completely beyond the words of the Act, and it remains entirely up to the PCC how it chooses to consult and what to decide in the light of that consultation.

What is required by the Act, apart from Resolution A or B already being in place, is four weeks’ notice of the meeting at which the motion is to be considered, attendance at the meeting by at least half of those entitled to attend, and two-thirds of the members present and voting being in favour. Abstentions are not votes. The minister himself must be in favour, even if not present, but a decision can still be made in an interregnum. The PCC then ‘petitions’ the diocesan bishop by means of a letter. Copies of the resolution do not have to be circulated.

What happens next?

The diocesan bishop, either personally or through his representative, is then required to ‘consult with the minister and PCC … concerned; and having done so he shall make appropriate arrangements for episcopal duties to be carried out…’ :section 8(1). I emphasize these words because there have been some recent instances of a bishop attempting to summon the entire PCC to a meeting, attended by the diocesan registrar, ‘to discuss the reasons for the decision.’ Such a judicial-sounding meeting is not what the Act is describing and the reasons for the decision are the PCC’s. The purpose is to consult about the appropriate arrangements, not to unsettle the decision.

Does the decision to petition ever need to be reviewed?

The resolution itself which resulted in the petition does not need to be reviewed, and again the recent Bishops’ Guidelines is at odds with the wording of the Act when it speaks of ‘review of a PCC petition’. What the deliberately worded Act requires is that a PCC ‘shall review the working of any arrangements in force in pursuance [of presenting a petition] at least once in every period of five years’:section 9(2). The decision itself is not up for grabs. If it is decided to withdraw the petition, then a PCC may do so – with the same formalities as before. Regrettably the ‘Draft Guidelines for the Review of a PCC Petition’ – appended to the 2001 Bishops’ Guidelines – follow the recommendations of the Blackburn Report (GS1395) which strayed beyond the Act, urging electoral roll members to be involved, a timetable for review no later than 6 months before the end of the five years, notification to the diocesan bishop and others and with provision for ‘communication of the decision’.

It needs to be said, loudly and clearly, that none of this is required by the carefully crafted Act! There is not even a requirement for a resolution at the review of the working of the arrangements. Under the Act, the review of the arrangements may, if it is wished, fall within ‘year 3’ after the original decision. Perhaps regional arrangements are found not to be working particularly well. Following this review the PCC impresses its concerns upon both the diocesan bishop and the PEV (always available as spokesmen and advisers), with the result that the level of episcopal arrangements is changed from regional to provincial. It is not about a re-taking of the decision.

We all appreciate that the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 is not perfect. It rests on anomalous premises, reacting as it is to a questionable innovation. But it is only seeking to provide, in juridical language, a way of co-existing during this period of discerning in the wider Church whether the Church of England’s provisional decision to ordain women to the priesthood has been the right one. What is particularly unhelpful is the attempt by those who should know better to attempt to rewrite the precise terms of its provisions.

Jonathan Redvers Harris takes an interest in canon law on the Isle of Wight