So the parliamentary stages have been completed, and the way is clear for the Canon enabling women to be admitted to the episcopate to be promulged at the November meeting of the General Synod, which follows immediately after this year’s National Assembly of Forward in Faith.
When the earlier draft Measure was defeated in November 2012, the voices of many parliamentarians (including that of the Prime Minister, who famously urged the Church of England to ‘get with the programme’) were heard not only condemning the outcome at that November Synod, but threatening all manner of dire consequences, were the Church of England to fail again, or even hesitate, in securing the appointment of women bishops.
It is worth, therefore, pausing over some of the things which were actually said in both Houses of Parliament when the present Measure came before both the Lords and then the Commons in the course of the last few weeks. Many of the words now inscribed in the columns of Hansard give much cause for hope and encouragement for members of Forward in Faith, and for all in the traditionalist Catholic and Evangelical constituencies.
In the House of Lords, the Bishop of Rochester said, ‘We live within a wider Christian world where this development is not accepted by all…we have committed ourselves to maintain a place without limit of time for those who are of the traditionalist viewpoint. These commitments are important because they take us to the core of what the Church of England is about and how it sees itself within our national life.’ And in his summing up, the Archbishop of Canterbury, referring to a speech from the traditionalist former member of the General Synod Lord Cormack, offered these words: ‘I say again that the Church of England is deeply committed to the flourishing of all those who are part of its life by the grace of God. It is not our intention that any particular group should wither on the vine.’
In the Commons, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, said that the question had been ‘how to maintain the theological breadth and diversity of the Church of England.’ ‘We have committed ourselves,’ he continued, ‘to maintain a place,
without limited time, for those who are of the traditional viewpoint. These commitments are important because they are at the core of what the Church of England is about.’ In the course of the debate, Robert Neil, the Member for Bromley & Chislehurst, welcomed the observations of Forward in Faith (is that the first time this organization has been mentioned by name in the Houses of Parliament?), and those of the Roman Catholic Church, about the provisions for traditionalists accompanying the Measure. Sir Tony Baldry took up Robert Neil’s remarks in his concluding speech: ‘The House of Bishops Declaration sets out five principles of non-discrimination, acceptance of diversity and recognition of difference across the Universal and Catholic Church.’
Here is the clearest possible recognition, in the heart of the Mother of Parliaments, not only of the practical arrangements contained in the new legislation and its accompanying provisions, but of the theological principles which inform them. Given such strong guidance from our parliamentarians, we can only hope that Sir Philip Mawer, whose appointment as the Independent examiner provided for in the Declaration we warmly welcome, will have precious little to do: for where the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Honourable Members in the House of Commons have pointed the way, surely no bishop, archdeacon, patron or lay Chair of a Deanery Synod could contradict them?
And now for something completely different. Just as we go to press, the Episcopal diocese of Connecticut in the United States is considering a motion calling for the abolition of all gendered titles for clergy, and for the substitution of gender-neutral forms of address in their place. This is a nondiscriminatory motion: male priests, under its terms, would not be allowed to be called ‘Father,’ nor female priests, ‘Mother.’ It is a long time since there has been a New Directions competition. But perhaps with so many other weighty and serious matters to consider, it is time for a little light relief. A prize for the best suggestion for a gender-neutral clerical moniker, and a bonus prize if it is accompanied by a suitable addition to the ‘How to Address the Clergy’ section of Crockford’s Clerical Directory. ND