The texts upon which we have relied
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the current proposals to ordain women to the episcopate is the way in which legislation has been framed which takes no account of solemn undertakings given to opponents of women’s ordination in the 1990s.
These promises, as the following quotations make clear were made not only in the Synod to opponents, but in Parliament to the Ecclesiastical Committee. As we show, concern about these undertakings was voiced in the Report of the Manchester Group, who feared that their removal ‘would trigger a period of uncertainty and turbulence’.
House of Commons on 29th October 1993
Michael Ellison 2nd Estates Commissioner:
“Recognising the divided views in the church on the issue the remainder of the measure provides an elaborate and comprehensive set of safeguards
designed to ensure that those who in conscience cannot accept the ordination of women as priests are not asked to act against their conscience… (then talking about A and B)….These are continuing provisions without limit of time built in, permanent, parochial safeguards.”
Synod 9th November 1993 – the Archbishop of York, John Hapgood:
” I turn finally to the question why an Act of Synod rather than legislation … This is a point which is re-occurred again and again in the ecclesiastical committee of Parliament on which some members in the synod continue to feel strongly. There are short answers based on practical considerations. It is possible now to act swiftly with an Act of Synod without legislation, and here then are two legal safeguards. What the Act does over and above is to appoint PEV’s
Is the Act of Synod enough? Can it be trusted? An over whelming endorsement of this Act would send a message to those who are worried that we mean what we say. Such an overwhelming endorsement would be difficult to undo.”
Synod 9th November 1993 – Michael Ellison, 2nd Estates Commissioner:
“I must tell the synod that it was really touch and go whether the ecclesiastical committee would wish to go down the line of this measure, (Act of Synod). It required only a tiny handful of my colleagues on the ecclesiastical committee to decide on the balance of safety and security, that the benefit of doubt had to be given to those present on the third measure and specific legislation
We still managed to persuade the critical number in the ecclesiastical committee, very much with the help of the assistance of the Archbishop of Canterbury and York when they came to the ecclesiastical committee to advise us and give evidence…. It was an act of faith on the part of the ecclesiastical
committee that you would you give our cherished minority this Act of Synod in good faith and in good heart and with sweeping and heartfelt approval and support”.
FROM THE MANCHESTER REPORT – 28th April 2008
First, such an approach would not simply deny any assured provision for those unable to receive the ministry of women bishops but would withdraw the provision that the Church agreed in the early 1990s in relation to women priests. This would be seen as repudiating earlier assurances.
For example, in 1993, Professor McClean explained to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament that the General Synod had rejected proposals which would have placed a twenty year limit on the provisions of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure. He said that this “signalled [the Synod’s] resolve that protection for incumbents and, in particular parishes, should remain in perpetuity for as long as anyone wanted it.”
3. Similarly the then Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Michael Adie, said, “…the time limit was removed in order to give permanence and continuity to provisions in the Measure so that they can last as long as they need.” Again Professor McClean noted that: “there are no time limits left at all in the Measure, although there were in earlier versions, and we see that the safeguards will be there and in perpetuity or for as long as they are required.”
A similar question was asked of the then Archbishop of Canterbury about what, at the time, was the proposed Act of Synod. In reply to the question about whether it would have a temporary life and cease to operate in some future date, for example when the last of the bishops then in office retired, Archbishop Carey replied: “it is our intention for this to be permanent and we are not thinking of rescinding it.”
It is, of course, perfectly possible to argue that assurances given before women were admitted to the priesthood can properly be revisited in the wholly new context created by the admission of women into the episcopate. Nevertheless, those who had accepted in good faith that the Church of England wished to keep an honoured place for them, notwithstanding their conscientious difficulties over women’s ordination, would feel badly let down. We have no doubt that many would conclude that they could no longer remain within a Church of England that had ceased to be willing to provide any reliable, national provisions for their convictions.
It is impossible to predict with confidence how individual clergy and parishes would respond if the present safeguards in the 1993 Measure and the Act of Synod were to be swept away. The number of parishes that has passed one or other resolution is only around 7% . For a number of reasons, however, this almost certainly underestimates the number of parishes which, on grounds of conviction, are not fully open to the ordained ministry of women.
Moreover, what is sometimes not appreciated is the wide geographical variation of the proportion of parishes not fully open to the ministry of women. There are many dioceses, particularly the rural areas, where the proportion of parishes that have passed resolutions is very low. But there are a quarter of dioceses, mainly in the larger urban areas, where more than 10% of parishes have passed one or other of the resolutions. In Blackburn a quarter of parishes have passed at least one resolution, in Sheffield nearly 20%.
There is no doubt, therefore, that proceeding with legislation that removed the earlier safeguards would trigger a period of uncertainty and turbulence within the Church of England. Many priests and congregations would undoubtedly leave. The Church of England that emerged at the end of the process might possibly be more cohesive. It would undoubtedly be less theologically diverse.
It would also be a Church that no longer attached the same weight as Synod did in July 2006 to resolution III. 2 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which asserted “that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans.”
Such an approach would represent an abrupt change of direction. We recognise that there has been much pain and frustration over the past 15 years both for those who believe that the Church of England was wrong to admit women to the priesthood and for women priests themselves who remain concerned that the Church appears less than wholeheartedly committed to their ministry. Nevertheless, the Church of England has managed to model the holding together within one Church of people who differ profoundly on a major theological issue.
Bishops who themselves feel unable to ordain women nevertheless license them to parishes within their dioceses. Clergy with fundamentally opposed convictions on this issue work together both in practical ways and in the formal governance structures of the Church. Archdeacons, both male and female, are able to work with parishes right across the spectrum of views. Yes, there is pain, but there has also been much partnership in that Gospel. This is not something lightly to be set aside.
It is, however, for the General Synod to take decisions. The fact that this, in legislative terms the simplest approach, is both supported by many in the Church and in principle has much to commend it, means that it needs to be adequately debated.
To put the point differently, we believe that the General Synod needs now to come to a clear view on whether it is committed to securing adequate arrangements for those who cannot receive the ministry of women bishops and priests as part of the process of admitting women to the episcopate. If it is not, then the legislation can be simple but a number of other consequences will follow. If it is, the question then becomes whether such arrangements should involve the creation of new structures of one kind or another.