Sam Philpott Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral and Vicar of St Peter’s, Plymouth, lays out the General Synod timetable for women bishops

The present General Synod meets for the last time at York in July, and then we are into elections. As with every General Synod, this one will provide its successor with a legacy of work, for the most part useful domestic matters for the ordering of the life of these two provinces. Professor Chadwick, preaching at the inauguration Mass of the 1990 Synod, reminded us that household arrangement was the extent of our remit – and was ignored.

The Synod is expert at ignoring wise counsel, and so in 1992, the Synod ignored wider Christendom’s plea for restraint, and took the fateful step of legalizing the ordination of women as priests. And what an aftermath!

Fatal legislation

This present Synod will leave a potentially more lethal (to the unity of the Church of England) piece of work, setting the stage for the final leg in that journey of fundamental and irreversible change with regard to the Church of England’s understanding of, and action in regard to Holy Order.

That the next Synod will pass legislation to make lawful the admission of women to the episcopate is, in my view, no longer a possibility but a certainty. It is simply indefensible for a church that proceeded to lawfully ordain women as priests, in large measure because it was a matter of justice, to continue the obscene injustice of saying to some legally ordained priests that, whatever their suitability on other grounds, their gender prohibits their legal ordination as bishop.

In February of this year the Synod, having received the Rochester Report, asked the Business Committee (the agenda setting group) to make time at York for a debate that would allow Synod to decide how it now wished to proceed in this matter. No one will be surprised that the July agenda provides for such a debate. Nor will there be any surprise as to the terms of the motion the House of Bishops (for they still lead in this matter) is bringing to Synod.

The timetable begins

The Synod will be faced with a three-part motion which, if passed, will begin the process of removing the legal obstacles to the ordination of women to the episcopate; request the House of Bishops to complete its assessment of the various options for achieving this (Guildford Group) and to bring a report to Synod for debate in February 2006; request a debate in February 2006 to allow it to determine the basis on which it wishes the legislation to be prepared and establish the necessary drafting group. Then there will be a pause.

The November Synod, newly elected, will devote itself to the visit of the Queen and its inauguration, but this matter will return in February 2006 and July 2006 and every Synod thereafter until the business is complete.

The official view is that, if all goes to plan, women will be able to be legally ordained bishop in 2010. My view is that the process will be shortened and for two reasons.

First, Synod is not setting out on a process, as in 1992, which is about innovation. Women are already lawfully ordained priest. The process now in hand is merely the removal of the prohibition in the 1992 Measure that prevents women being bishops because they are women. This change can be dealt with by a one clause Measure amending the 1992 Measure.

For those opposed

The more difficult part is what to do with those opposed who, it was hoped, would have gone away by now but in the providence of God are still very much here, tenaciously standing with the mind and practice of the Universal Church in this matter. The Guildford Group (so called because its chairman is Bishop Christopher Hill of Guildford) on behalf of the House of Bishops, is currently reflecting on the various options (and possibly others as yet unknown to us) set out in Rochester.

Guildford will be in the hands of the Synod, possibly amended by the House of Bishops, in July so we shall see what the bishops prefer in this matter. If unwise counsel prevails, for example by offering a code of practice, although totally unacceptable to those whose needs it will be designed to meet, it could be enacted in one debate in Synod. Hopefully, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is on record as recognizing that the issue is a structural one, and demands a structural solution, will persuade his fellow bishops and the Synod not to be foolish or niggardly in this matter.

The real issue for those opposed is whether or not they have the nerve to stand their ground in setting forth what it is they need to be themselves. Consecrated Women? in its second part provides a draft Measure that will give security to those opposed, by the establishment of an additional province (a structural solution to a structural problem) of the Church of England, allowing Canterbury and York to return to a position in which the ministry of the ordained, of whatever gender, is universally acceptable.

This is what is required and no other option measures up. It is crucial that the bishops hear this message loud and clear.