If you have not yet read the Manchester Report James Patrick will lead you through the options and the many questions that its conclusions pose
On 22 August 1485, the Lancastrian forces led by Henry Tudor met those of the Yorkist Richard III on Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. The battle that followed saw the defeat of the Plantagenets, the rise of the Tudors, and brought an end to the thirty-two year War of the Roses. 523 years later, within yards of that battle field, the House of Bishops is meeting at the time of writing, considering the Report of the Women Bishops Legislative Drafting Group chaired by the Bishop of Manchester [GS 1685].
The motion which brought the group into being recognized that those who assent to and dissent from the ordination of women as bishops are loyal Anglicans. It invited the church to continue to reflect on and debate the issue. It asked for the creation of a group to prepare legislation to make it happen, and also to establish legal provision for those who in conscience cannot accept this development, whilst at the same time maintaining the highest possible degree of communion.
This was to be submitted to the House of Bishops for consideration and submission to Synod. What the result of those deliberations will be, it is impossible to guess, but it will not be an end to the debate, which is only just beginning. But time is short: from publication to debate at the July Synod in York is only ten weeks.
There is much to rejoice at. Whereas the report in 2006 of the House of Bishops’ Women Bishops’ Group [GS 1605, the Guildford Group] was felt by some to be unsatisfactory and complicated, yet vague, the Manchester Report identifies issues, looks at problems directly, and asks clear questions.
We start the debate knowing that the issue will not disappear. Of course, as the report identifies, some of the opposition to the ordination of women as priests has dissipated. Those for whom it was simply a novel idea have had concerns banished by experience. But others continue to express doubt over a development which is not shared with other Churches.
The period of reception has not been completed, they say: it is still just beginning. Even now, over 900 parishes have passed at least one resolution, and over 360 have so far petitioned for Episcopal Oversight, whilst more (in Blackburn, Chichester and Edmonton, for example) have yet to have need to do so. Petitioning parishes may number less than 3% of the total, but if grouped together would be the eleventh largest diocese, bigger than Peterborough. Men continue to offer themselves for ordination. Opinion is still divided. How, then, does the broad Church of England move forward?
The first real question the report asks is, does the Church actually want to make any provision at all to protect those who object conscientiously to the consecration of women? Many who would answer, no. Over 700 women priests recently signed a letter to that effect in The Times. The Report reminds us such a move would repudiate earlier assurances. As Professor David McClean said in 1993, the Synod resolved to protect incumbents and parishes ‘in perpetuity for as long as anyone wanted it… there are no time limits left… the safeguards will be there…’ It is on the back of these safeguards that people have remained in post, in their parishes, and been ordained.
Justice demands that there should be provision. Anything else would mean the Act of Synod was a Trojan Horse. Were there no provision, the effect would be dramatic. Many parishes and clergy would feel badly let down. It would trigger a period of uncertainty, with clergy and people leaving, which in turn would diminish the breadth of the church, making it the poorer theologically at the same time as affecting it financially. How would it fit with the resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that those who dissent from the ordination of women are ‘loyal Anglicans’? No wonder the report asks just how committed the Synod is to securing provision for opponents of this legislation. We must pray that it is.
And if it is committed, then the Report asks what form this provision might take. We should give thanks for the language which is used. The Group is concerned that there should be mutual flourishing of those on different sides in the debate. We should all be sensitive and generous. There should be no discrimination.
It is important to remember in all this, that none of the options offering various structural solutions are designed to be set in stone. Whatever solution is offered to a parish that cannot in conscience accept the ministry of a woman bishop (or of a male priest ordained by a woman bishop) need not last for ever. Parishes must be able to move in and out of any of these new structures. The word used is ‘permeability’; divisions are meant to be flexible, not impermeable barriers.
As Christians, called to make disciples of all nations, our mission of taking the Good News of Christ to the world should be at the heart of all that we say and do. So to enable that mutual nourishing, it looks at what the options are, and even suggests four new solutions, which are to some extent a re-working of the Guild-ford Group’s ‘Transferred Episcopal Authority’ idea. It is with those four solutions that we shall start.
All four solutions involve what is termed a ‘complementary bishop’ (who would be a similar species to a PEV) who would act as the delegate of the diocesan bishop. In the first three variations, in fact there is no transfer of episcopal authority at all: it is delegated; not TEA but DEA.
In variation one, what we know as Resolutions A and B would no longer exist. A parish could not opt out of the ministry of women bishops and priests on theological grounds. There would though be a code of practice to which a diocesan bishop would be obliged ‘to have regard’. After the diocesan bishop has had regard to the code, she (or of course he) could if she chose delegate certain powers to the complementary Bishop. Equally, he or she might not choose to delegate.
Variation two is like the first, but with the possibility of passing each of the two resolutions. Again, there would be a code of practice to which the diocesan bishop would have to have regard and she or he could, if she or he so chose, then delegate certain functions to the complementary bishop.
Variation three is yet more complicated. Again, the resolutions may be passed, but here, instead of a code of practice, there would be legislation requiring the diocesan bishop to delegate certain functions to the complementary bishop, failing which his or her refusal could be challenged in court.
Variation four, though, is more like TEA. Again, resolutions may be passed, but where they are, a parish is not actually transferred to the complementary bishop. Instead, certain limited specific responsibilities for priests and parishes for certain parishes would transfer to the complementary bishop.
All this would be entirely new, needing measures and codes. But there are other solutions investigated. A Religious Society (like those found in the Roman Catholic Church, most notably Opus Dei) and a Peculiar Jurisdiction (like Westminster Abbey), like Aunt Sally, are put up and knocked down.
Given more attention are new special dioceses. Proposed are probably three dioceses operating in the same way as the ‘historic dioceses’ relating to the General Synod, with their own boards of education, and finance. The report is concerned that the historic dioceses will have holes in them, supposedly like gruyere cheese. Perhaps it worries too much: a parish on a diocesan boundary can cope even though the next-door parish is in a different diocese. Many dioceses have schools, hospitals, barracks, dockyards, colleges and peculiars like Westminster Abbey or Bristol’s Lord Mayor’s chapel and still manage. Holes are not nearly as uncommon as we might think.
Finally, raised up to be knocked down is a new province, like that proposed in Consecrated Women?
There are so many to choose from. What are we meant to think?
Perhaps we should start with asking ourselves, what is the effect of the consecration of women as bishops? If we do, the answers become clearer. The traditional Anglican understanding of the local church is the bishop gathered with his clergy and people. His deacons assist him; his priests act for him. His people gather around him; he is the focus of unity. If a woman is consecrated as a bishop, are her orders valid? How can we be sure that the sacraments that she administers are valid? If there is doubt, how then can she be the focus of unity?
What effect, in turn, would this have on the unity of the House of Bishops, where what makes us Anglicans is that we are Christians gathered as the local church around our local bishop who is in turn in communion with his fellow bishops? Fracture a part and we fracture the whole. The importance of this cannot be overstated by loyal Anglicans.
Is this just an argument for provision? Of course, but it is more than that. It highlights the difficulties which each of the new variations present. For a moment, we can gloss over whether a code of practice is enough, and simply ask what ‘a complementary bishop’ is going to be prepared to operate? Would we be expecting the bishop to do more than we ourselves are prepared to do? If the answer is yes, then the next question is, why should we ask it of them? And this in turn might lead us to wonder who would do it.
If a parish cannot accept a woman as bishop, how can it expect the complementary bishop to accept her? The role of Archdeacon might be able to be split between the sacramental priesthood and the legal duties of the Bishop’s officer, but a bishop is different. The focus for unity cannot easily divide into functions, some of which are gender-specific and some of which are not.
Perhaps, though, this does not persuade you, and you think it might work. In which case you must consider the codes of practice. We must ask, what is being provided: is it a life-line or is it terminal care? Do the proposals enable parishes to grow in the Spirit, or will they bring about irritation, and division? Codes of practice exist in many fields. There are codes of practice for example for the arrest, detention and interview of suspects by the police. The majority operate them fairly, but not all. Where they are not, what is the sanction?
Codes work best when there is the goodwill to be accommodating and generous. Where there is already irritation and division, they are dangerous. How will it work, with a parish needing provision, working with a woman bishop? What will it be like for a woman bishop to relate to a parish which doubts her very orders? Experience suggests that codes can be flouted, but rules are obeyed. They provide certainty, and the freedom which comes from this.
So is it terminal care, or are loyal Anglicans to be allowed mutually to flourish? If they are, then there needs to be certainty: sacramental certainty. There cannot be doubt about whether a person’s orders are valid, or whether the sacraments they administer are valid. There needs to be an end to discrimination simply on the grounds of sex.
The simplest solution in fact would be the creation of a new province. It would remove the irritation. It would mean a few more holes in a diocese, It is important to remember in all this, that none of the options offering various structural solutions are designed to be set in stone. Whatever solution is offered to a parish that cannot in conscience accept the ministry of a woman bishop (or of a male priest ordained by a woman bishop) need not last for ever. Parishes must be able to move in and out of any of these new structures. The word used is ‘permeability’; divisions are meant to be flexible, not impermeable barriers. But it would mean certainty of orders: those within the province would have it, and those in the historic dioceses would have it. Both sides, in their own sphere, would have the certainty they need. On this basis, they might work together more easily and with greater respect than is currently expected.
So we return to Bosworth Field. We know what the Manchester Group has offered. What will the Bishops bring to Synod? Time alone will tell.
We can do no more than pray that when this battle is ended, the Church of England will be allowed to grow and flourish.