Patrick Cormack on the Act of Synod and the parliamentary process

Those who suggest that, after ten years, the Act of Synod can be conveniently cast aside because it was an unnecessary gesture of appeasement are guilty of an almost Stalinist re-writing of history. Without the Act of Synod, the Ordination of Women Measure would probably have come off the parliamentary rails. Although both the Measure itself, and that enshrining the financial provisions, were passed by huge majorities, without the Act of Synod, and the promises that preceded and followed it, the Ecclesiastical Committee would almost certainly not have deemed the Measure expedient.

The Ecclesiastical Committee, on which I have served since 1970, was established when the Church Assembly was created in 1919. It consists of members of both Houses, presided over by a Law Lord, and has the task of examining all Church Measures and deciding whether they are ‘expedient’. If it decides a Measure is not expedient, it is sent back to Synod, but the Committee has no power to amend, although it can summon witnesses from General Synod. It is specifically instructed to report on each Measure to Parliament ‘stating the nature and legal effect of the Measure and its views to the expediency thereof, especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all Her Majesty’s subjects’. Although the deliberations of the Committee are conducted in private, its evidence sessions are in public and a full transcript is published.

I was present throughout all eleven (mostly very lengthy) sessions that the Committee held between March and July of 1993 when it considered the Ordination of Women Measure. Witnesses from General Synod came before us on four consecutive occasions and before we produced our Report there was a legislative conference of the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Legislative Committee of the General Synod, attended by both Archbishops.

From the very beginning of our deliberations two things were abundantly clear. First of all, it was plain that a majority of members of the Ecclesiastical Committee (fifteen members from the Commons and fifteen from the Lords) was in favour of the ordination of women. Secondly, however, it quickly became apparent that all of the members of the Committee who contributed to the deliberations (and that was most of them), including those who wholeheartedly supported the concept of the ordination of women, were concerned about safeguards for traditional clergy and worshippers, making it plain that they felt that those safeguards needed to be formally expressed and rigidly followed.

Almost all the lengthy and detailed questioning of witnesses focused on the safeguards issue. Early questions probed the first Manchester Statement (the second ‘Bonds of Peace’ was issued during our deliberations). It soon became clear that members of the Committee were not going to be satisfied by Manchester alone, as it was acknowledged even in the first session, by Professor Maclean, that, although Clause 2 of the Measure did not prevent the Manchester Statement taking effect, it certainly did not guarantee that it would.

Even the late Baroness Seear, as feisty a proponent of women’s ordination as one could find, asked whether it was possible for an amendment to be produced which would give protection. Of course the answer had to be no, bearing in mind the constitutional limitations of the Ecclesiastical Committee. Baroness Seear’s follow-up was very telling, as she said to the Bishop of Guildford, ‘Bishop, most of us like myself, and I think most of us here, are desperately anxious to get this through. Do not make it difficult for us to do what we earnestly want to do. You are making it very difficult.’

Although I cannot pretend that I adopted a low profile during our sessions, it is noticeable, reading the evidence, that those of us who were opposed to the Measure were receiving very significant support on this issue of safeguards from the Measure’s supporters, especially from Frank Field.

Most unusually the witnesses, in recognition of the controversial nature of the business, included two of Synod’s opponents of the Measure, the Reverend John Broadhurst (now, of course, the Bishop of Fulham) and Mr Peter Bruinvels. As the sessions continued, it became apparent that most members of the Committee would settle for nothing less than an Act of Synod. A number of us pressed for a Measure that would contain binding commitments.

This was a point that came up again during the Conference attended by the Archbishops in July. Peter Pike, the Labour Member of Parliament for Burnley in the Blackburn diocese (where all three Houses voted against the Measure), was himself an advocate of the Measure, but he stressed that the Manchester Statements were ‘absolutely crucial’. He went on, ‘We are being told by the Archbishops that with good faith it is the intention to introduce [an Act of Synod] … what we are also being told is that nobody can guarantee on any side what will happen in the years ahead’, and he pressed the case for an accompanying short Measure.

‘Safeguards’ dominated our discussions as we drew up our Report. Many of us were mindful of the assurances we had been given at the time of the Worship and Doctrine Measure, and which had not been honoured. I was successful in getting an amendment accepted which reflected this, so that Paragraph 42 reads ‘A minority of the Committee, while acknowledging the value of the Manchester Statements, feel very strongly that embodying them in an Act of Synod will not give sufficient reassurance to dissentients within the Church given that such an Act could be revoked by simple majority at any meeting of the Synod. They cite the assurance given at the time of the passing of the Worship and Doctrine Measure which in their view has not prevented the continuing erosion of the use of the Book of Common Prayer. For this minority, on this issue, a supplementary Measure would give greater reassurance.’

Even though the report makes plain that the majority of the Committee were satisfied that an Act of Synod was an appropriate vehicle to embody the Manchester Statements, the final paragraph of our Report could not be more emphatic. ‘The Manchester Statements have manifestly been formulated and issued with an earnest desire to preserve the unity of the Church of England and to allay the fears and doubts of the opponents of the Measure. The majority of the Committee sees the proposed Act of Synod as a demonstration of that desire. As already indicated, the preservation of the unity of the Church of England, following the introduction of women priests, will need good will on all sides and cannot be secured by legislation alone. It is the fervent hope of the whole Committee that that unity will be preserved.’

When the House came to debate the Report on the 29th October 1993, the safeguards issue again occupied much of the debate. It was, in parliamentary terms, an extraordinary occasion. Traditionally church measures and Friday sittings do not attract a large attendance. This particular measure and this particular sitting did. At the very beginning Tim Renton (now Lord Renton of Mount Harry), a strong supporter of the Measure, intervened to ask the late Michael Alison (then the Second Church Estates Commissioner) ‘what guarantees can be given [to the opponents of Women’s Ordination] that it [the Act of Synod] would not be withdrawn later.’ In answer Michael Alison quoted the final paragraph of the report and called in aid the Manchester Statements. He went on to say, ‘ The Church is trying, through the Act of Synod, to get to the heart of the necessary unanimity and goodwill spelt out in the Act of Synod … to make the commitment to fairness and to allowing a hundred flowers to bloom and the two integrities to exist as a reality. That is the determination.’ (My italics)

In his powerful speech Frank Field pointed out that most of the Committee’s time had been spent ‘considering how the Measure will affect some of Her Majesty’s subjects, especially those who disagree with the Measure … They are not people with different views who joined the Church; they are people who, at one time, found themselves in the majority and now find themselves in the minority. The Ecclesiastical Committee therefore, quite rightly, spent most of its time considering how that group should be protected’. Speaking of the Act of Synod he went on, ‘That Act of Synod was not offered; the information that Synod could pass such a Measure had to be extracted from Synod witnesses and it was almost like getting blood out of a stone … I hope the House will consider carefully what further Measures may be necessary at some later date to protect the right of the minority who disagree with the Measure’.

Summing up the debate Michael Alison sought to answer those of us who had continued to voice our misgivings in the debate and, quoting the Report, said, ‘It says that we hope to “enter a process in which it is desirable that both those in favour and those opposed should be recognised as holding legitimate positions.” I cannot think of a more promising or comprehensive Statement than that made by the Bishops at the Manchester gathering in June.’

As I look back upon our deliberations in Committee, and on that debate in the House, I am in no doubt that clear promises were given and accepted as such. They are there for all who take the trouble to read the Committee’s proceedings to see. I am not suggesting that the vote on the Measure in the House of Commons would have gone the other way without the safeguards, though the majority would have been significantly smaller. But I am quite sure that the Ecclesiastical Committee would not have commended the Measure as expedient, had it not been for the assurance we received on safeguards for the minority.