Paul Benfield continues to chart the progress of the women priests legislation, from the time it was first passed to parliament until the first ordinations of women took place

After General Synod had given final approval to the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure in November 1992, the Measure passed to parliament where it first had to be considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee. This committee, consisting of members of both Houses of Parliament, has the duty to consider any measure passed by General Synod and to draft a report to parliament stating the nature and legal effect of the measure and its views as to the expediency thereof, especially in relation to the constitutional rights of all Her Majesty’s subjects.

The Committee met eleven times, four of them with members of Synod present, to consider the Ordination of Women Measure itself and the associated Financial Provisions Measure. It was decided at an early stage that ‘so far as the theological and ecclesiological arguments are concerned the Committee are at one in taking the view that it is not for the Committee to pass judgment on those issues, which are properly matters for the Church.’

Considering the costs

In considering the expediency of the two Measures, the Committee had to consider how much it would cost both financially and in terms of division within the Church of England and the rights of those who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood. Some members felt that the provisions for those opposed were not good enough.

A meeting of the House of Bishops of General Synod with all the other bishops in Manchester in January 1993 led to the publication of a statement of seventeen lengthy paragraphs, which included the sentence: ‘We recognise…that there are those who doubt the theological and/or ecclesiological basis of the decision, and we accept that these are views which will continue to be held within the Church of England, and that those who hold them remain valued and loyal members of the Anglican family’

It went on to set out arrangements for those who could not accept women priests, including the appointment of not more than three bishops to act as Provincial Visitors The Manchester Statement was tendered in evidence before the Committee and forms part of the Committee’s Report.

Concern expressed

The House of Bishops met again in Manchester in June 1993, and afterwards it issued a statement entitled ‘Bonds of Peace’ in which it set out arrangements for pastoral care following the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. This stated that ‘Those who for a variety of reasons cannot conscientiously accept that women may be ordained as priests will continue to hold a legitimate and recognised position within the Church of England.

There should be no marginalisation of anyone on the basis of their attitude towards the ordination of women to the priesthood.’ It went on to say that the bishops, corporately and individually, are pledged to maintain the integrity of both positions. The statement went on to include a draft Act of Synod. ‘Bonds of Peace’ was also tendered in evidence and forms part of the Committee’s Report.

The Ecclesiastical Committee was concerned that the arrangements in the Act of Synod should be contained in a further Measure so that they could not be revoked by a future Synod without reference to parliament. At a conference of the Ecclesiastical Committee and the Legislative Committee of the General Synod on 5 July, Lord Holderness said, T myself do not see – and I would very much like to have the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury upon this – that trust is going to be restored by undertakings, however solemn, from the Archbishops or the House of Bishops who, great and good men as they are, will not be there in office forever. Nor do I think, with respect to what the Archbishop said at the beginning, that that trust is going to be restored by an Act of Synod.’ Mr Frank Field MP wanted an assurance that what was in the Act of Synod could be put into a second measure, though not so as to delay the main measure. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, said, ‘It is our intention for this [the Act of Synod] to be permanent and we are not thinking of rescinding it or anything like that.’

The Ecclesiastical Committee voted on 12 July by 16 to 10 that the Measure was expedient, and the House of Lords and House of Commons approved it in October. It received the Royal Assent, and thus became law, on 5 November 1993. From that date it was lawful for General Synod to make provision by canon for enabling a woman to be ordained priest.

Solemn affirmation

Meanwhile the draft Act of Synod had been debated in General Synod in July and was revised in Synod on 9 November. An amendment which provided that ‘no-one who holds that it is impossible for a woman to be priest’ would in future be ordained or appointed to senior office was overwhelmingly defeated. The Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 was given final approval on 11 November (Bishops 39:0, Clergy 175:12, Laity 194:14).

It provided that discernment in the wider Church of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible, that the highest possible degree of communion be maintained within each diocese and that the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women should be mutually recognized and respected. It then set out the practical pastoral arrangements with which we are familiar. The Act of Synod was solemnly affirmed and proclaimed an Act of Synod on 22 February 1994. As such it is not law per se, nor does it have the force of a statute, but it has great moral force.

Earlier on the same day, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced to Synod that the royal licence and assent to make the necessary canon to allow women to be ordained priest had been granted and the canon was approved by the simple majority required. It was then signed and became a canon of the Church of England with immediate effect and so women could legally and canonically be ordained as priests in the Church of England. The first ordinations took place in Bristol Cathedral on 12 March 1994.