Paul Benfield on the lawyers behind the Third Province

In the spring of 2002 I received a message asking me to contact Canon Beau Brandie. This intrigued me. Were the Brighton Sea Scouts about to sail into Fleetwood and require accommodation at my church hall? Was Beau planning a Gala Night for Our Lady of Walsingham at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, just down the road? Alas, it was rather less exciting. He was assembling a group of lawyers.

Beau Brandie had been asked by the Council Forward in Faith to convene a working party to consider what legal provisions would be necessary and possible for those unable to accept women bishops in the event that the Church of England decided to have women bishops. How and by whom the members of the working party were chosen remains a mystery to me. I had practised at the chancery bar in Newcastle upon Tyne before ordination and had developed an interest in ecclesiastical law, fostered by the Ecclesiastical Law Society. Other members of our group had taken their interest further by reading for the master’s degree in canon law at Cardiff.

The other priests in the group were Jonathan Redvers Harris, a solicitor and Vicar of All Saints, Ryde, and James Patrick, NSM priest at All Saints, Clifton, and a practising barrister on the Western Circuit. He became involved in an exceedingly lengthy trial at Winchester, so his attendance was not as often as he would have wished, but his contribution was still significant. The laymen were Clifford Payton, a practising barrister and churchwarden of Holy Trinity, Reading, and Brian Hanson, well-known in catholic circles as a guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and a trustee of many societies. His value to us (in addition to his ever present politeness and good humour) was that he had spent most of his professional life working for the church, first for the Church Commissioners and then for the General Synod. He had been Legal Adviser to the General Synod at the time of the 1992 vote and so was intimately acquainted with all the legislation concerning women priests. But it was his vast knowledge of the entire law of the Church of England that proved invaluable as we considered all the issues that would flow from women bishops. He had originally agreed to act as assessor, but he became so involved with our work that he agreed to become a full member of the working party.

Beau Brandie acted as convenor and minute taker and Stephen Parkinson was in attendance to record the discussions and add some very pertinent comments and questions. We usually met at Christ the King, Gordon Square, starting mid-morning and concluding by late afternoon. The break for a sandwich lunch (so expertly prepared and served by Stephen – has Forward in Faith thought of setting up a catering subsidiary?) allowed a chance for news from the various parts of the country to be exchanged. Much laughter could be heard throughout the day.

We started working on the basis that we were the lawyers advising ‘the client’, the Council of Forward in Faith. Beau was to act as the link between client and lawyers, rather in the way that an instructing solicitor acts between client and counsel. We soon found, however, that this model would not really work, because we could not have the necessary detachment from the client that is necessary for a lawyer in professional situations. For we were not only the lawyers, we were also the clients. The Council of Forward in Faith expressed our hopes and fears for the future. If there were to be women bishops, they would be in our church and possibly seeking to exercise authority over us who could not accept that they were bishops. Whatever happened we would all be personally affected – some of us to the extent of having to give up our homes and incomes if no adequate provision were made. We also kept in mind our many friends, lay and ordained, who were in parishes that had not passed any resolutions and so were likely to be in an even more difficult situation than us with the advent of women in the episcopate. We realized that whatever happened many people would be faced with very difficult choices.

When we first met, most, if not all of us, had considerable doubts as to whether or not it would be possible to devise a workable solution to the problem of women bishops in the Church of England. There was an uneasy feeling that we might end up advising the Council of Forward in Faith that we could suggest no solution. However, as the months went by and we talked and talked, we all became convinced that our proposals were the way forward. Indeed, by the end of our deliberations we had come to the unanimous view that they were the only way forward.

After our early meetings we sometimes seemed to have achieved very little. But having stated the problems (and new ones seemed to crop up at each session) we would think about them between meetings. I would spend the long train journey up the West Coast Line musing on how I would be affected if +Lavinia Lancaster were the suffragan in my diocese. How would my parish be affected if there were +Belinda Blackburn? What problems would arise beyond the obvious? I usually travelled with a copy of the Canons of the Church of England in my bag and fellow travellers would be surprised as, having just thought of another potential difficulty, I suddenly dived for the volume as we trundled through Staffordshire.

In the week following a meeting e-mails would be flying up and down the country as we tested new problems and solutions on each other. When our report was in the drafting stage cyberspace became thick with our communications. Curiously, it was not the legal technicalities that caused the most controversy, for they had been thrashed out in full session. Rather, it was grammar and vocabulary that caused the most debate. Imagine lawyers arguing over the use of the subjunctive or debating the correct noun for a particular sentence. When an American spelling crept in because of the over-enthusiastic ‘spell check’ on my computer, threats of resignation were made.

At times it was such fun that we seemed to be playing an elaborate parlour game – except that what we were dealing with was not some game, but the validity of Holy Orders and the Sacraments.

Paul Benfield SSC is Vicar of St Nicholas, Fleetwood.