Sam Philpott on the Shadow Working Party on Women Bishops

The lunch was at York during the July 2001 meeting of General Synod. Anne Williams, Fr Kirk and I were guests of the then Archbishop, George Carey, having requested to meet with him on behalf of Forward in Faith. He received us warmly and over the meal demonstrated how easily he could be misread, even by those close to him. I had been warned that we should avoid any mention of third provinces – ‘the Archbishop could not bring himself to think the words, let alone engage with the idea.’ Very early in the conversation, it was George Carey who asked us to explain the idea to him!

We had come to speak of women bishops (that very morning General Synod had turned down a request that the proposed Working Party should have ecumenical participants). George Carey was warmly encouraging of the idea that Forward in Faith should establish a study group to shadow the official working party.

We came away with work to do and I had was entrusted by the Forward in Faith Council with gathering together a group of people who could undertake what we recognized as a serious piece of work.

We were determined to secure a significant ecumenical participation. Through the good offices of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, whom I knew from my membership of CTE and CTBI, we were given Fr Aidan Nichols OP. I know that every member of our Shadow Group (and many beyond it) will concur that Fr Aidan has been a most congenial, whilst at times challenging, companion. We have valued his learning, his charity and his friendship. I also knew his Eminence Archbishop Gregorios because his Plymouth community had worshipped first in All Saints and then St Peter’s, Plymouth, churches for which I had responsibility. He graciously gave us Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia. Bishop Kallistos has enabled us to penetrate the wonder of the Orthodox Church, its life and its teaching. He will understand if I simply say that he brought a sense of the antiquity of our Faith. We also invited the Methodist Church’s Faith and Order Committee to provide a member, fully aware that this would guarantee the presence of a supporter of the ordination of women. Their unwillingness to do so was a great disappointment.

We were keen that the working party should not have a single mind on the issues before it and we invited two well-known Anglican supporters of the ordination of women to join it. Judith Maltby of Corpus Christi College declined to join us, replying that we should leave the matter to Rochester. Dr Mary Tanner, formerly General Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity, at first agreed and then, sadly, had to withdraw for personal reasons. She agreed to act as an external assessor of the Shadow Group’s work. She has provided that assessment and has done so in a way that resonates with an objectivity consonant with the gift of charity, a particular aspect of her nature that I have always greatly valued.

There were two other external assessors – Oswald Clarke, for most of my life-time Chairman of the House of Laity in General Synod, and Fr Robin Ellis, sometime Archdeacon of Plymouth and Chairman of the Catholic Group in Synod. We owe a debt of thanks to them and to Mary Tanner for the care they took to read our work and to comment critically and usefully upon it.

As to the others – John Broadhurst was both fascinating and fascinated. He also provided us with synod references of past discussions and decisions with a precision that any Church House staff member would be proud to achieve. Geoffrey Kirk provided lunch at the first meeting of the group, and from then on got stuck into the conversation. And what a delicious feast (of thought and word) someone devoid of all ambition is able to set before his companions. Jonathan Baker, at Holy Trinity, Reading, and now of Pusey House, more than demonstrated his grasp of the issues and his ability to engage with them. It earned him the task of editor. Sara Low (if any dare to think of her as the token woman, they should meet her first.) is a highly intelligent and articulate person who has no need of numbers for comfort, someone who is always direct and to the point in her contributions. The fact that the two other women invited to join us had declined, did not faze her one little bit. Andrew Burnham (how I enjoyed that chuckle!) brought his knowledge of liturgy, old and new, and so much more to the table. John Hunwicke, learned, wise and perceptive, someone who impressed the group so much when he came to read a paper to us that we invited him to stay and what a find he proved to be! Brian Hanson slipped in and out (he was a consultant to both the theological and lawyers groups) and when present kept us all realistic. Stephen Parkinson provided the venue and much more, not least the audio recording facility. Since Kirk had become fully engaged in conversation, Stephen provided the lunch too! I was at first called the chairman and I have now become the convener. The latter more accurately describes what I did – I made a note of the meeting and sent out agendas and I wrote letters to invite others to meet with us. The truth is that chairing this group of eager beavers was nigh on impossible, even when one of them told me that I should do so.

How did we proceed? At our first meeting we set out the ground to be covered and listed a range of experts that we would like to consult, either by inviting them to our meeting or by their submission of a paper on a particular aspect of our task. We also advertised in New Directions invite any and all to contribute as they were able. Both as a group and with our visitors we very quickly and deliberately adopted the style of a conversation, allowing it to range fairly widely at first. Considerable focus was brought to bear when we addressed a particular submission and nearer the conclusion of our work when we had to draw our thinking into some realistic shape that could become a report.

Among our visitors we saw the majority of the catholic Bishops – the Archbishop of York, the Bishops of Europe, Chichester, Horsham, Richborough, Pontefract, Beverley, Edmonton, and we met with the Bishop of Lewes. In addition, papers were provided by Martin Williams, Archdeacon of Morgannwg, Fr Arthur Middleton, Prebendary David Houlding and the Revd John Richardson, all of whom came to meet us. We also considered a paper by Professor Alan Brent. All of them were helpful; the Bishop of Beverley in particular brought some challenging observations on our work.

We usually met at Christ the King for a morning and afternoon session, and we met for one residential meeting at Pusey house as we began to form the report itself. We first met in October 2001 and our meetings extended into 2004.

The Report is now in the hands of Canterbury Press and will be launched in October 2004 under the title Consecrated Women? Women Bishops: The Forward in Faith response, edited by Jonathan Baker. If you want to play a serious part in the decision now before our church, you should get a copy.

My own memory of the group is that it was just exhilarating to be with a group of people who were challengingly engaged in an exploration of our faith in an atmosphere of real solidarity – something approaching koinonia.

Sam Philpott is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Plymouth.

Consecrated Women? Women Bishops: The forward in Faith Response is available from the Canterbury Press at