As the debate on women bishops returns to the church arena Owen Higgs outlines how existing legislation enacted by Synod should be understood, so that effective progress can be made

Dear Reader, you have the advantage, for it is likely that by the time you are reading these words the Manchester Group will have published its report on how the Church of England might proceed to ordain women to the episcopate. But in case the fog of ecclesiastical disputation has fallen over the report, New Directions offers a compass with which to navigate the debate. That compass is drawn from the principles of 1992 Act of Synod which provided for the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The principles set out in the Act are in summary, that

1. Women should be ordained to the priesthood.
2. The bishop is ordinary of his diocese.
3. It is desirable that

a) all concerned should endeavour to ensure that (i) discernment of the Tightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible; (ii) the highest possible degree of communion should be maintained within each diocese; (iii) the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognized and respected, b) there be practical pastoral arrangements in each diocese to reflect this.

Underlying principles

The reasons why these principles were adopted show their continuing relevance. One reason was politics. Without some provision, it is unlikely that the legislation would have met the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliaments concerns for the rights and interests of those who opposed the legislation.
However, there were also deeper principles at stake, as brought out by Dr John Habgood in an article written for ND [March 2004] in which he noted:

‘No time limit was set on the Act, and those of us who promoted it were relying on the Gamaliel principle [Acts 5.38-9], whereby in due course it should become plain to all those open to God’s guidance, when the time has come that it is no longer needed. We assumed that members of the Church of England would be open-minded enough, and generous enough, to learn from each others experience whether this new ministry is clearly being blessed by God or not’ [3a.i in the above summary of the Act].

Sadly, in some peoples minds the Gamaliel principle never seems to have been given a chance. Supporters of a one clause Measure which would leave no provision for their opponents have often argued that everybody knew the Act of Synod had only a short life. The submissions to Parliament by some of the Church’s most senior figures, and Dr Habgood’s article, suggest otherwise.

General Synod has not actually asked that Gamaliel question: does experience show this innovation was correct? For many people the answer is obvious, yet that is far from so. It would take more space than this short article to do the question justice, but there seems to have been little serious thought given to what might be the marks of a blessed innovation. Is it just (!) a matter of goodness as people suggest when say the clergywoman next door has done a lot of good, so it must be all right? But what if good has also come from my neighbour the imam – and bad and good has come from our male Rural Dean? Or perhaps we should ask whether women’s ordination has achieved what its supporters expected? If it has, why do fewer people come to church today compared to 1992?

So if more work needs to be done if the Church is to be faithful to the Gamaliel principle, what should we expect as signs of what Dr Habgood called ‘continuing open-mindedness and generosity’? The fact that this report was commissioned by General Synod is a sign of generosity and should be welcomed as such. But what in the content of the report would show consistency between the Act and the report? Not theological or ecclesiological tidiness. The Gamaliel principle implies that in the discernment of truth, the testing of an innovation over time and the unity of the Church are at least as important as logical consistency.

So we should not require the Manchester Group to deliver theological purity. However, there are expectations which are surely legitimate: firstly, that women be ordained to the episcopate (for the avoidance of doubt, FiF thinks it is a mistake to do so but a Church which ordains women to the priesthood should in justice ordain them to the episcopate); secondly, that the bishop remain the ordinary of his diocese – how that diocese might be defined and how that jurisdiction be exercised is another matter; and thirdly, that there should be practical pastoral arrangements so that the integrity of the differing beliefs be mutually recognized and respected.

Showing generosity

That third point is the key issue. The 1992 Act declared immediately after its statement of principles that there should be no discrimination against candidates for ordination or senior office. In many dioceses that declaration is ignored. However, the Act then provided for the ‘flying bishops’ and resolution parishes, and it is these which have become the practical expression of the Act’s generosity.

So how the report deals with flying bishops and resolution parishes shows what consistency there is with the Act. The status of these bishops and parishes will be changed when women become bishops, because the ordination of women to the episcopate widens the sphere in which women have authority in the Church, in particular by giving women the authority to consecrate, ordain and discipline. If the principles of the Act are to be honoured, new space needs to be created for those who cannot accept this. Such a new space requires the continuation of episcopal oversight, broadened to take account of these new circumstances. It would continue to allow parishes to move to a different episcopal oversight as part of the process of discernment [3a.i] and would avoid, wherever possible, separate organization, e.g. of stipends [3a. ii]. It would also give PEVs rights which women bishops will have – the rights to choose men for ordination and to ordain them [3a.iii], to make appointments and to exercise discipline. To do this would show the open-mindedness and generosity, and faithfulness to solemn undertakings of a great and living Church.