The revised text of the document The Case for a Free Province of the Church of England which the Council of Forward in Faith is commending for discussion in the regions.

THE FOLLOWING is the revised text (as at Dec 15, 1998) of the document The Case for a Free Province of the Church of England which the Council of Forward in Faith is commending for study in the regions at special meetings to be convened in Spring 1999. Comments and suggestions from members of Forward in Faith are being sought at every level.

It is the hope of the Council that this document can be one which is owned by the whole constituency, as part of a considered response to the impending ordination of women as bishops, and the current attacks being made on the Act of Synod and its provisions.


P.1 IT IS SOMETIMES said that on November 11 1992 the Church of England approved the ordination of women to the priesthood. But that is not the case. What was proposed to the Synod was not (and in the political realities of the time could not have been) a one clause measure. The result of the 1992 vote and the subsequent Act of Parliament was that the ordination of women to the priesthood was hedged about with unprecedented provisos. The legislation acknowledged that individual bishops could not be coerced in the matter (and that whole dioceses might become ‘no-go areas’ for the new ministry). It allowed parishes the formal legal right to reject the innovation by taking one or both of the resolutions in Schedules A and B. It might be argued (as some of the proponents of the new ministry have argued) that the legislation undermined the force and clarity of Canon A4 as it had previously operated.

P.2 In the discussions which took place before the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament (whose task is to examine Church legislation with regard to the rights and liberties of all the Queen’s subjects, and so to determine its ‘expediency’) it became apparent that the provisions of the Measure were inadequate. An ‘Act of Synod’ was proposed to supplement the Measure, and so avoid the embarrassing necessity of returning it to the floor of a deeply divided Synod.

P.3 By this Parliamentary process, the Act of Synod became, in effect, the Church of England’s formally acknowledged interpretation of the intent and meaning of the Measure. It was passed by an overwhelming majority.

P.4 The Act of Synod was successful, not only in securing the passage of the Measure in the House of Commons, but in stemming the outflow to other communions of those opposed to the new ministry (so limiting the demands made on the Church Commissioners under the Financial Provisions Measure). It was a pledge, freely given by the Synod, to those who in conscience could not receive the new ministry that they had an enduring place in the life of the Church of England.

P.5 The 1992 Measure, however, left unfinished business. It specifically excluded the ordination of women to the episcopate. At a time when other provinces of the Communion which have ordained women have proceeded to episcopal consecrations, and when women bishops have been received with cordiality at the Lambeth Conference, such a restriction might well be thought anomalous.

P.6 This document frankly acknowledges the tensions and anomalies which Clause 2 of the 1992 Measure has created. In the spirit of the Act of Synod it offers a way forward which, by careful restructuring, would permit the General Synod and Parliament further to affirm and celebrate women’s ministry (by the elevation of women to the episcopate), and at the same time to make good its undertakings to those who cannot in conscience receive or recognise them as bishops or priests.


1.1 It is clear that opposition to women’s ordination has not significantly declined, though it is now five years from the first ordinations of women in England, twenty-five years from the first ordinations in the United States and thirty-five years from the first ordinations in the Church of Sweden (Porvoo Communion).

1.2 Our principal ecumenical partners, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, remain implacably opposed. The ardent letters of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Willebrands to Archbishop Runcie have been followed by formal statements of the Roman Magisterium rejecting the innovation. (see GS pp. 125-133). The Orthodox and Ancient Oriental Churches have all reiterated their opposition. And as recently as 1998 the Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece voted to lower its degree of participation in the Anglican-Orthodox Commission to observer status.

1.3 Nor has the new ministry been universally accepted or even welcomed among Anglicans. As the Eames Commission (Eames I, para 38) envisaged, women’s ordination remains a matter of dispute and contention throughout the Anglican Communion, where half the provinces have not adopted the new ministry and some have rejected it repeatedly when proposals have been brought before their provincial synods. “Certain issues, particularly those which affect the bonds which hold the Communion together, namely the faith, the sacraments and the ministry, or issues which concern changes in relationship of Anglicans to other world communions, need the reflection of the whole Communion; they need a Communion-wide mind”, wrote the Commission in 1989. (The Lambeth Conference of 1998 affirmed its commitment to the principals of the Grindrod Report and the Eames Commission in Resolution III .2)

1.4 But there seem to be few indications that such a “Communion-wide mind” is developing or emerging. Indeed decisions on other issues are threatening its world-wide coherence in a similar way. In the Church of England, despite the best efforts of proponents, the number of parishes in England voting resolutions A, B and C (especially C) has increased over that five-year period and has probably not yet peaked.

1.5 Despite significant losses to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches both of clergy and of laity, the membership of Forward in Faith has steadily increased, and its institutions – the annual National Assembly of over five hundred elected delegates, the sixteen Regional Deans and the forty-four Diocesan Assemblies – have given the constituency a democratic forum where views can be expressed and policy agreed. Forward in Faith has established a settled and productive life, regulating the constituency and serving its needs.

1.6 In spite of assurances to the contrary, diocesan bishops have failed to appoint suffragans opposed to women’s ordination. The Provincial Episcopal Visitors have consequently exercised and developed a ministry of oversight which has come to be accepted as the normal pattern in the parishes in their care. The PEVs and the Bishop of Fulham now care for a worshipping community larger than either of the autonomous Anglican Provinces of Ireland and Scotland. As the Act of Synod envisaged, they speak for and represent a constituency far wider than that of the ‘C’ parishes This pattern of episcopal oversight and care is now so established and valued that it is inconceivable that it could be dismantled.

1.7 All this confirms the wisdom of the Eames Commission when it wrote:

“It is particularly important that the process of reception should not be foreclosed. The lack of an agreement on this matter with some of our ecumenical partners should alert us to the provisionality of the decision-making process in Anglican Provinces, and even in inter-Anglican organs of consultation” (Eames I para 46)

An Admirable Experiment

2.1 In the absence of a common mind on many issues in the Anglican Communion (and with little hope of establishing the structures which might achieve it) the brave attempts in England, and, indeed, in the Church in Wales, to allow an honoured place in the one Church for both women priests and their opponents have been beacons of hope that the unity of the Communion worldwide can be sustained despite these divisions. They are perhaps the only tangible results of the Eames process.

2.2 The Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod in the Church of England exhorted both parties to mutual tolerance, and specifically disowned discrimination against the minority in the matters of appointments and admission to ordination. Regrettably appointments statistics since 1993 seem to show that the opposite has been the case. By the provision of extended episcopal care, it also frankly acknowledged the impairment of communion which results when a diocesan bishop chooses to ordain women. The Act of Synod was a settlement necessary to maintain the unity of the Church of England and the near unanimity of the General Synod at the time reflected this view.

2.3 It should not be forgotten that the opponents of women priests also made significant concessions. By the most important of these the diocesan bishops opposed ensured that the “no-go areas” envisaged in the Measure did not come into being. Forward in Faith, in its Agreed Statement on Communion and Code of Practice, followed the principles of the Act that “the greatest possible degree of communion” should be maintained. Despite the existence of women bishops in other provinces and their inevitability in this, it restricted impairment of communion to the presbyteral level, fully accepting and receiving the purely episcopal acts of bishops who had ordained women (e.g. episcopal consecrations). This distinction (very far from the caricature of the views of Forward in Faith as a doctrine of ‘tainted hands) has made possible the ‘extended episcopal care’ which the Act envisaged.

An Experiment Under Review

3.1 Some provinces of the Anglican Communion have shown that they have no time for the Eames proposals and for the notion of “a degree of provisionality”. They have foreclosed the “period of reception” by refusing opponents admission to Holy Orders or to office in the Church. (In Canada the conscience clause of 1980 was withdrawn in 1982; in the United States Amending Canon 18b has denied office in the church to those who cannot accept the priestly ministry of women) Some within the Church of England, disregarding pledges to Parliament and the huge Synodical majority for the 1993 Act, are actively seeking its repeal. In the title of a recent volume of essays, which ‘argues forcefully that the Act was a disaster’, it has been described as an ‘Act of Folly’ which is ‘profoundly damaging to the unity of the church’.

3.2 A consultation under the aegis of Prebendary Paul Avis’s Centre for the Study of the Christian Church took place at St George’s College, Windsor Castle, in 1998, and made the following recommendations:

i] The Consultation identified a definite need for objective and comprehensive research into the practical workings of the Act of Synod. This should be officially sponsored by the Church of England and undertaken by suitably qualified persons by professional methods. Members of the Consultation are willing to advise and assist in this.

ii] The Consultation also identified a need for widespread education and communication, especially in theological education and ministerial training, regarding the provisions of the Act of Synod. This requires a central initiative by the Church of England. Education and dialogue should be officially sponsored both centrally and locally, rather than left to individual initiative.

iii] The Consultation recommended that the Code of Practice issued by the House of Bishops in conjunction with the legislation to make possible the ordination of women to the priesthood (i.e. prior to the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993) should be revisited to take account of the experience of its working, following appropriate research and dialogue. Any revision should incorporate lessons in good practice derived from such research. The Code might usefully be expanded to include a code of practice relating specifically to the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod.

3.3 Those with good will towards the Act of Synod, and towards the principles of the Eames Commission which undergird it, will work for the full implementation of those recommendations. In 1998, the House of Bishops established a Working Party under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Blackburn to undertake just such a review.

An Experiment under Threat

4.1 The consecration of women as bishops, a factor not addressed in the April 1998 Consultation would render revision of the 1993 Act of Synod not only desirable, but inevitable.

4.2 In the view of many of its proponents the programme for women’s ordination remains incomplete. Though women are bishops in other provinces of the Communion, their consecration in England is forbidden by the 1993 Measure and their episcopal orders are not recognised in the Church of England (nor are the orders of those ordained by them). Yet if, as is often maintained, the presbyteral and episcopal orders are closely linked both historically and functionally, and if the ordination of women is the ‘justice issue’ which many hold it to be, then the consecration of women as bishops must follow their ordination as priests as night follows day.

4.3 Those opposed to women’s ordination understood this from the beginning. We saw the clause excluding the consecration of women to the episcopate as political rather than theological. In the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament: “…it is illogical to separate the presbyterate from the episcopate, but we have chosen to do it this way because we need the experience of women in the ministry”.

4.4 We believe that internal circumstances, and ecumenical considerations (not least our entering into formal unity discussions, once more, with the Methodist Church) render a consideration of the implications of women bishops for the Church of England at large and for the Act of Synod in particular, essential. (see GS Misc 477 para 25)

4.5 The Act of Synod has pioneered principles of toleration and forbearance which could prove the key to the future harmony and coherence of the whole Communion. The opponents of women’s ordination who have thereby been enabled to remain in the Church of England (when other bishops, priests and lay people have felt compelled to leave it) have demonstrated their loyalty, despite scurrilous accusations to the contrary. Though the press constantly uses terms like “rebels” and speaks of a desire to “split” the Church, the fact is that many opponents of women priests have been tenacious of their position as loyal members of the Church of England and continue to be so.

4.6 It is also a fact that the Act of Synod – constructed solely with the provisions of the 1993 Measure in mind – is incapable of meeting the demands which the inevitable consecration of women as bishops will place upon it. In the review of the Act of Synod now being undertaken, there can be no excuse for not considering that development.

4.7 Women bishops will introduce a degree of impairment of communion not, as yet, experienced in England. Just as the college of priests of every bishop is now fractured by the admission to it of those whose orders some cannot in conscience recognise, so the House of Bishops will similarly be fractured, and the collegiality upon which it relies will also be severely impaired. The position of all diocesan and suffragan bishops who, on doctrinal grounds, decline to ordain women, would be rendered untenable. They could not with integrity act collegially with those whom they believed not to be bishops.

4.8 The very continuance of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, who have so effectively held opponents within the Church of England, is thereby also called into question.

A Way Forward

5.1 It is be clear that the Anglican Communion can boast solid achievements in living with disagreement, containing dissent and managing change. It has recently accepted, for example (in order to accommodate those provinces who wanted to ordain women) that interchangeability of orders, though previously thought to be a fundamental principal is no longer necessary to world-wide koinonia. In half a century Anglicans have moved from the condemnation by the Lambeth Conference of 1948 of the ordination of Li Tim Oi to the welcome in 1998 of women bishops (despite the fact that their orders were not recognised by significant numbers of bishops present and the exercise of their ministry would have been illegal in the host province). This is an achievement which our ecumenical partners view with wonder and astonishment.

5.2 What can the role of the bishop as a “focus of unity” be understood to mean, in a Church which, to facilitate the ordination of women, has willingly sacrificed the interchangeability of orders both inter-provincially and provincially (the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 effectively suspends Canon A4)? Clearly he can no longer see himself as the head of a united college of priests (all of them equally sharing his presbyteral ministry), nor can he share collegially in the episcopal ministry of all his colleagues throughout the Communion. None of these things remains unimpaired.

5.3 It needs to be asked whether the idea of a “period of reception” (with its clear implication of a foreseeable time when disagreements about women’s ordination will have been resolved) is still a realistic way of approaching divisions which clearly go far deeper than the presenting symptom.

5.4 Is it possible that, on the issue of women’s ordination, Anglicans have stumbled over one of the great and enduring divisions of Christendom – as enduring a division as the Great Schism or the Protestant Reformation; one involving basic beliefs about scriptural revelation and about fidelity to it? Many of the proponents of women priests clearly think so. And if so, what should be done about it?

5.5 Anglicans, by developing the radical notion of the independent autonomous province, have provided a ready solution to their own dilemma. It is now thought to be possible to tolerate between provinces doctrinal and sacramental disagreements which are thought to be intolerable at provincial or diocesan level. It follows that if it is more important to uphold the role of the bishop as focus of unity in a particular territory than it is to assert the unity of the college of bishops throughout the world, then impairment of communion between bishops is more desirable than the same impairment between a bishop, his clergy, and the people of his diocese. The course of action is plain. By adapting existing structures and practice and by constituting significant bodies of opponents of women’s ordination into separate and autonomous provinces these could then relate to other such provinces in the new ecclesiology which is emerging.

5.6 This course of action is particularly appropriate within the United Kingdom, where the existence of a number of small autonomous provinces in one nation state has already affected the way that Anglicans see themselves. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Parliament effectively restructured the Established Church, by creating both the Church of Ireland and the Church in Wales

5.7 Wisely guided by the General Synod, Parliament could make the necessary changes now with a minimum of legislation. Such changes would have the advantage of freeing for mission and evangelism both parties in the present unedifying dispute. They could facilitate the appointment of women as bishops for those who wanted it. They would give to opponents of women priests and bishops a secure continuance within the church. The new arrangements would have the effect of determining the length of the period of reception without in any sense foreclosing it.

Your Questions Answered

6.1 Is the idea of a Free Province for opponents of women priests new?

No. In its starkest form it was first laid out as one option among a number in the Report to the General Synod by the McClean Commission (GS738) as long ago as 1986. Paragraph 45 of the Report begins:

“We have explored a proposal under which a separate church would come into being but which might provide a framework for a peaceful separation and leave intact some links … ”

But what is being proposed in this document is not a ‘separate church’ but a rearrangement of present structures to give freedom and security to those who cannot accept women as priests and bishops.

6.2 Would the establishment of a Free Province amount to schism in the church?

On the contrary! The Established Church has always sought to embrace divergent theological positions and has never been shy of a pragmatic approach. An autonomous Free Province would build on and extend the successes of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod by retaining in the church those who might otherwise leave.

6.3 What about the establishment?

It is perfectly possible, should the Government of the day think it wise or desirable, that a Free Province could share with the rest of the Church of England its relationship with the State. The constitutional changes inaugurated by the present government, however, make it likely that that relationship will itself be subject to re-evaluation and change.

6.4 How would a Free Province relate to the Provinces of Canterbury and York?

In the event of women being ordained to the episcopate the integrity of opponents would require that a diocesan episcopate without women bishops be continued. The rights and freedoms of those bishops and their dioceses would need to be established and respected. That apart, the relationships between them and the provinces of Canterbury and York would be close and cordial – certainly no less so than relationships between York and Canterbury and the provinces of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It would be perfectly possible for the Church of England to operate on a federal model – precisely the model which is envisaged in its future relations with the Methodist Church.

6.5 What about the General Synod?

Opponents of women as priests and bishops cannot accept that the synods of local churches have authority to make changes of this kind. They could not, in consequence, accept the role of the General Synod in many of the doctrinal areas in which it has come to see itself as competent. They also regret the ecumenical consequences of recent innovations, and would need to establish free and independent relations with other churches.

6.6 How would parishes of the Free Province – which would be located among parishes of the Province of Canterbury or York, or both – relate to those parishes?

There would be free and full eucharistic hospitality between them, and full co-operation in matters of common interest and pastoral concern.

6.7 But surely we ought not to encourage the setting up of parallel episcopal jurisdictions?

A Free Province would be nothing new. There have been parallel jurisdictions from time to time, in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. What is being proposed in this case, however, is not a parallel episcopate, but a clearly defined geographical entity. The parishes of the Province would not necessarily be contiguous; but they would nevertheless be distinct and discrete. No Anglican bishop but their own could claim authority over them.

6.8 How would clergy and lay people – and parishes – become members of the Free Province? Would there be any provision for those who had joined to return to the Provinces of Canterbury and York?

The Free Province would continue the ‘process of reception in the wider church” of women’s ordination as priests and bishops which the Eames Commission commended and on which the 1993 Act of Synod was based. The hope that, with time, a common mind might be reached would continue to undergird the arrangements made. There would therefore need to be provision for movement both into and from the Free Province, of parishes, clergy and people.

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