In a first of a series, Paul Benfield reminds us how earlier legislation for women’s ordination made its fitful progress through General Synod and why earlier confusions may be a source of some encouragement now

After the July General Synod there was, in some circles, talk of the synodical process being over, and the battle to secure a proper place in the Church of England for those who cannot accept women priests and bishops lost. Such talk was premature. To seek to make 7 July 2008 as significant a date in the history of the Church of England as 11 November 1992 is to misunderstand history and the synodical process. In July 2008, Synod asked (by a simple majority) that draft legislation be prepared to enable women to be consecrated bishops, whereas in November 1992, Synod voted by a two-thirds majority in all three houses to give final approval to the legislation that would allow women to be ordained priests.

It is instructive to look over the history of the debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood and the passage of the legislation which ultimately permitted it, as this shows how things can change quite dramatically from the time of the initial discussions to the final approval of legislation. It also shows how many of the issues considered then need to be revisited now that women bishops are being considered.

Early debates
Discussion of women priests predates the General Synod, which came into existence in 1970. In 1962, the Church Assembly asked for a study of the subject and this was published in 1968. In 1972, a consultative document on the ordination of women was published and, because the question involved matters of doctrine, the matter was referred to diocesan synods. The majority of diocesan synods approved the motion ‘That this synod considers there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood.’ In 1975, General Synod approved the same motion, together with a motion inviting the House of Bishops to bring proposals to remove the legal and other barriers to the ordination of women ‘when, in the light of developments in the Anglican Communion generally as well as in this country, they judge the time for action to be right’.

A motion moved in 1978 by the Bishop of Birmingham, Dr Hugh Montefiore, to remove the legal barriers to the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate was defeated in the House of Clergy, but in November 1984, a motion asking for the Standing Committee to bring forward legislation to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Provinces of Canterbury and York was carried in each house (Bishops 41-6, Clergy 131-98, Laity 135-79).

Discussion of safeguards
Nothing happened until after the election of a new Synod in the autumn of 1985, when the Standing Committee established a group to consider what the legislation might contain. Its chairman was Professor David McClean and its membership included such well-known opponents of women priests as Mr Oswald Clark, Canon George Austin, Canon Brian Brindley and Dr David Hope (then Bishop of Wakefield). The membership was, as stated in its report published in June 1986, ‘about equally divided between those sympathetic to and those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood.’

The resulting report set out possible safeguards for parishes and bishops who could not accept the ministry of women priests, possible financial provision for those priests who felt compelled to resign and possible arrangements for those who could not accept the ministrations of a bishop who had ordained a woman priest. The group was clear that any provisions should be ‘entrenched’; in other words, no safeguard could be removed by subsequent legislation unless that obtained a two-thirds majority in each House of General Synod.

As regards those unable to accept the ministrations of bishops who ordained women priests, the group said that such people would regard those who had associated themselves with the ordination of
women as having so far departed from Catholic order as either to render their sacramental ministry invalid or at least to create some doubt as to its acceptability: They would feel entitled, and in conscience bound, to refuse the episcopal ministrations of such bishops and would be in some difficulty in relating to the structures of a Church in which those bishops exercise jurisdiction. There are real difficulties in seeing how one who so rejects the acts of a bishop can be ‘in communion with him. If this process leads to a group regarding itself as being no longer in communion with the current occupant of the See of Canterbury, it is hard to see how it could claim to be part of the Anglican communion.

Nevertheless, the group went on to suggest five possible ways of dealing with the problem: delegation of episcopal ministry; exemption from spiritual jurisdiction; a non-geographical diocese; a separate body related to the Church of England; and complete separation.

Evaluating the options
As far as delegation was concerned, the report suggested that a bishop who himself ordained women to the priesthood would be required on the petition of a parish to delegate the exercise of certain functions (such as confirmations and institutions) to some other person in episcopal orders designated for this purpose by the Archbishop of the province, and went on to note that this relatively simple procedure carries with it some real difficulties: From the point of view of those parishes which receive the delegated ministry, the very fact that the delegate-bishop would derive his authority from a diocesan bishop who might ordain women, even if he had not already done so, might be seen as compromising his position and render the arrangement insufficient to meet the problem.

With regard to exemption from spiritual jurisdiction, the report suggested that a parish could petition to be exempt from the spiritual as opposed to the purely temporal jurisdiction of the bishop of the diocese in which it was situated. The petition would be addressed not to the diocesan but to a new body of lay Assessors, and it would be those Assessors, appointed and acting under the authority of the Measure, who would effect the transfer of spiritual jurisdiction from the diocesan bishop to another bishop who had taken no part in the ordination of women to the priesthood. The report stated that it is argued by some that the division between spiritual and temporal functions which is at the heart of this approach is both unworkable and destructive of a proper understanding of episcopacy. The oath of obedience to the diocesan bishop is an acknowledgement of the fullness of episcopal oversight. It could be redrafted to indicate the division of that oversight, but some of us are unhappy at the alternative approach on this point which is to treat the matter as a fairly empty formality relating to the ‘corporation sole’, the See, and not to the personal occupant of that See.

The Group considered the transfer of parishes to one or more non-geographical dioceses covering the whole of England or some part of it, noting that this would need no attempt to divide episcopal oversight into spiritual and temporal and no reliance on the notion of delegation. Its only concerns with this solution were with ‘administrative difficulties’.

Bishops’ reaction
The groups report was debated and ‘received’ by General Synod on 8 July 1986, but the House of Bishops had not had an opportunity to consider it, so further consideration of a motion to prepare legislation was postponed ‘to enable the House of Bishops to report to Synod before steps are taken to prepare legislation.’ The House of Bishops published a unanimous report in February 1987, in which they set out the principles on which the legislation should be based.
The bishops supported safeguards for bishops and parishes and financial provision for those who felt compelled to resign, but indicated some crucial principles which, in the light of later events, might seem surprising. They said that safeguards should not be without time limit: ‘We do not consider that safeguards can be ‘entrenched’ but nor do we recommend that it should be written into the measure that the clauses containing safeguards should automatically cease on a given future date. Safeguards should be seen as an interim arrangement.’ They advised that a motion that a parish would not accept a woman priest should be taken to the APCM by the PCC, but made no recommendation as to whether a special majority should be required.

They stated (twice) that it is difficult to see that a bishop who was unable to recognize the orders of a woman priest could minister as a diocesan bishop in a diocese where there were already women priests, and that once a province had expressed its mind in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood and proceeded to so ordain women, it would be anomalous to appoint a bishop who was actively opposed to the mind of the province, and in particular opposed to the common mind of the college of bishops.

Opposition to provision
They went on to say that it is difficult to see how a single parish could ‘opt out’ of a diocese which had expressed itself in favour of the ordination a women: Nor is it possible to envisage such parishes relating to one another under the jurisdiction of a bishop who was himself opposed to the ordination of women. It would be legally undesirable and theologically unacceptable to form a non-territorial diocese of such parishes and for the diocese to remain within the province concerned. For to be in communion should entail the recognition of ministries and sacraments together with the inter-changeability of ministries. They therefore said that there should be no provision for those who could not accept the ministry of bishops who had ordained women priests.

The bishops’ report was received by Synod on 26 February 1987, and Synod invited the Standing Committee to bring forward legislation in accordance with the guidelines in the report. Those opposed to women priests might have been tempted to give up at that stage, since the legislation was to be prepared on the basis that provision for them was only to be of a temporary nature and that there was to be no provision for those who could not accept ministry from a bishop who had ordained a woman priest. We shall see in the next part how the House of Bishops and the whole Synod changed their minds as the proposals went through the legislative procedure.