Paul Benfield, a member of its House of Clergy, continues his survey of exactly how the women priests legislation made its progress through General Synod in the late Eighties and early Nineties

The draft legislation to permit woman to be ordained priest was ready for its first consideration by General Synod in July 1988. Before Synod considered the legislation itself, it considered the second report of the House of Bishops, which set out the detailed arguments for and against the ordination of women as priests. In doing this, the House was indicating that the 1975 resolution of Synod that ‘there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood’ was not to be the last word on the matter. From 1988 onwards, matters proceeded on the basis that there were genuine objections to the ordination of women and that those who held them needed some provision. The question was what that provision should be.

Draft provision

The draft legislation allowed a diocesan bishop to make various declarations to the effect that no woman was to be ordained priest in his diocese, that no woman was to hold the office of

incumbent or priest in charge and that no woman priest was to be given a licence or permission to officiate. Parishes were given the power to pass resolutions A and B with which we are familiar today, but the resolutions were to be passed by the Annual Parochial Church Meeting or a Special Parochial Church Meeting, and only if the PCC had so resolved first. The resolutions had to be considered in the case of a vacancy or pastoral re-organization, but otherwise they could not be reconsidered within three years of a vote being taken. The legislation contained a clause providing that the Measure could not come into force until another Measure dealing with financial hardship had also been approved. The draft measure contained no ‘entrenchment’ clause. In other words, once passed, it could have been amended by a simple majority in Synod.

The draft legislation was given general approval’ (as it was then called) by far less than the two-thirds majorities in each house that would be required for final approval (Bishops 28:21, Clergy 137:102, Laity 134:93). It was then committed to a Revision Committee.

At the Revision Stage, any member of Synod may suggest any amendment to draft legislation and the Revision Committee is bound to consider each and every proposal; 392 amendments were proposed, ranging from fairly minor technical amendments to far-reaching proposals such as one for a ‘Continuing Church of England’ from Canon Derek Gibbs. This latter proposal and many others were rejected.

Significant changes

However, significant amendments were made by the Revision Committee. Changes were made so that only bishops in office at the time of the legislation were to be able to make most of the declarations. Those coming into office later would be able to decline to allow women to be ordained priest in their dioceses, but they could not prevent them from being incumbents or priests in charge, or from having a licence or permission to officiate. The decision on resolutions A and B was to be by the PCC and not a parochial meeting and there had to be twenty-eight days notice of the meeting. The quorum for the PCC to consider the resolutions was raised from a third to a half. A new clause was added concerning cathedrals (which originally were not covered at all) and there were amendments to the clauses on sex discrimination to protect all those acting from possible actions for unlawful sex discrimination. A new clause was inserted which provided that the provisions for those opposed to women priests should expire after twenty years, but that Synod could extend that time limit by a simple majority. Also added was an ‘entrenchment’ provision whereby any changes to the legislation, once enacted, could only be made by a two-thirds majority of each house of Synod.

After amendment by the Revision Committee, draft legislation is brought back to the Synod for revision in full Synod. At this stage, any proposal which has been considered by the Revision Committee may be raised again by any member -even if the Revision Committee rejected the proposal. There were over thirteen hours of debate on that day and on the resumed debate two days later. It was on 9 November 1989 that the most important amendment was made. Dr John Habgood, Archbishop of York, said that many saw the twenty-year time limit for provisions designed to protect those opposed to women priests as a threat, and that he hoped Synod would reject it. Synod took his advice and the clause was deleted, meaning that the safeguards for those opposed could only be removed by a two-thirds majority in each house (and subsequent parliamentary approval). In the words of Dr Colin Podmore, in his book Aspects of Anglican Identity, ‘This may be seen as a turning point in the whole process, marking the beginning of a concern to assure those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood of a permanently protected position in the Church of England.’

Final approval

After completion of the Revision Stage, the legislation had to be referred to the dioceses, since the draft measure provided for permanent changes in the Ordinal. The diocesan synods had until 30 November 1991 to consider the motion ‘That this Synod approves the proposals embodied in the Draft Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure and in draft canon C4B (of women priests) and draft amending Canon no. 13.’ This motion was lost in Blackburn, Chichester, London, Portsmouth, Truro, Europe and the Forces Synodical Council, but passed in 38 of the 44 dioceses, and so the legislation could continue on its long journey to enactment.

After a final drafting stage in February 1992 and approval by the House of Bishops in June, the legislation came before Synod for final approval on 11 November 1992. It was only at this stage that a two-thirds majority in each house was required. After a full day’s debate, it was approved (Bishops 39:13, Clergy 176:74, Laity 169:82). These figures represent 75%, 70.4% and 67.3% in each of the three houses respectively. Had just two lay members voted differently, it would have been lost.

The legislation had taken over four years from first consideration to final approval. But before it could become law, it had to be approved by parliament. This would not be straightforward, as we shall see in the final article.