Simon Killwick, Chairman of the Catholic Group in Synod, explains the complex procedural timetable before definitive legislation can be voted on and why there is still a way to go

The General Synod met in July in an incredibly hyped-up atmosphere with petitions and publications coming from all directions; prior to Synod, there had been keen media interest, and of course there was a considerable media presence in York itself.

The debate and vote on the House of Bishops’ motion on provision in the event of women bishops was widely seen, and described in the media, as the decisive vote on women bishops in the Church of England, as though the consecration of women to the episcopate would have followed within weeks or months of the vote. However, neither the Church of England nor its General Synod work that way.

Nothing can actually happen until the Synod gives Final Approval to a Measure, which in the case of women bishops will probably not be before 2013; even then Parliamentary Approval and Royal Assent are necessary, making 2014 maybe the earliest time when it would be legally possible for women to be consecrated as bishops.

In the meantime, there is still a long way to go; the formal legislative process, which must go through various set stages, has not yet begun; things can and do change significantly in the process of going through all the necessary stages. Some past history will show just how much things can change.

Reducing archdeacons

When, in July 2001, the Synod was debating its own size and membership, again before the formal legislative process began, I proposed an amendment to reduce the number of archdeacons on the Synod from about 43 to about 9; the amendment was passed by an overwhelming majority. Some people thought that was that, and the issue was then settled. I explained to them that I fully expected the archdeacons to make a comeback at a later stage in the process. What happened next was that a Legislative Drafting Group was set up, under the chairmanship of Bishop Stephen Venner, including, as is customary, a range of opinion – which in this case meant that I was a member, as was the Archdeacon of Norwich.

The Drafting Group drafted the legislation which, covering a range of reforms to synodical government and membership, was introduced into the Synod for First Consideration, the first stage of the formal legal process, in February 2003. The draft legislation is introduced by a Steering Committee set up for the purpose; in this case, the membership of the Steering Committee was almost identical with that of the Drafting Group. No amendments are allowed at the First Consideration stage, though it is usual for members to flag up in speeches issues that they intend to include in amendments later. The draft legislation was approved to go forward to the next stage, a Revision Committee.

The Revision Committee comprised the Steering Committee, as is required, and a number of other Synod members, representing again a range of opinion. Every member of the Synod was then invited to write in to the Revision Committee with proposals for amendments to the draft legislation.

There were a huge number of them, ranging through all the minutiae of synodical government; as I expected, they included a concerted attempt by the archdeacons to re-establish their numbers on the Synod. After considerable discussion in the Revision Committee, over a number of meetings, it was agreed that there should be a constituency of twelve archdeacons on the Synod, still much less than they wanted. In February 2004, the draft legislation was brought back for the Revision stage in full Synod, at which amendments can again be proposed. Not surprisingly, the archdeacons mounted a spirited assault, and persuaded the Synod to allow up to 44 archdeacons to be elected.

The archdeacons made a successful comeback in 2004, despite a large majority of the Synod voting in 2001 to reduce their representation to about 9. This shows just how much things can change through the legislative process of the General Synod.

Back in the Eighties

Another example of how much things can change is in the process of legislation for the ordination of women to the priesthood. In June 1986, a report was published by an equivalent of the current Legislative Drafting Group for women bishops setting out a range of options for providing for those who could not in conscience accept the priestly ministry of women, and for those who could not accept the ministrations of a bishop who ordained women.

In February 1987, the House of Bishops published a unanimous report supporting provision for parishes which could not accept the priestly ministry of women (which came about in Resolutions A and B), but rejecting any provision for those unable to accept the ministry of bishops who ordained women (such as the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod). The Synod decided that legislation should be drafted on this basis.

In July 1988, the draft legislation for women priests was introduced into the Synod for the equivalent of First Consideration. It was then committed to a Revision Committee, and a large number of amendments were proposed. Revised draft legislation then came back for revision in full Synod in November 1989. One significant amendment the Revision Committee had made was to introduce a 20 year time limit on Resolutions A and B.

Just as Revision Committees can make significant amendments, so the full Synod can undo them, or make further amendments; the Synod decided to drop the 20 year time limit. The legislation had a number of other stages to go through, including being referred to the dioceses. As we all know, it received Final Approval in the Synod in 1992.

The Act of Synod only came afterwards in 1993, following a meeting of the House of Bishops which agreed a unanimous statement to support it. In this case, not only were significant changes made during the Synods formal legislative process, but one huge change came in after Final Approval, namely the Act of Synod. Interestingly, it strongly resembled one of the options in the original drafting committees report, which the House of Bishops had rejected six years earlier.

Fr Paul Benfield is writing on the process of the women priests legislation, which gives a much fuller treatment than I can give here; this history is very important to inform us for the forthcoming women bishops process.

Early stages

With women bishops, we are currently at the kind of stage the Synod was at in 1987 regarding women priests; the formal legislative process has not yet begun. The Synod has however supported the House of Bishops’ motion calling for provision in a code of practice.

The Legislative Drafting Group will draw up draft legislation to be introduced into the Synod in February next year; a Steering Committee will be formed to introduce the legislation and steer it through the legislative process. The Steering Committee may well include a number of its members, with the proviso that only those who are fully supportive of the legislation can be appointed to the Steering Committee.

When the Steering Committee introduces the legislation into the Synod, no amendments will be allowed; instead the Synod will be invited to give First Consideration to the draft legislation. Assuming that the Synod agrees to First Consideration, a Revision Committee will be set up to consider amendments, consisting of the Steering Committee plus a number of other Synod members (the number has to be such that the other members of the Revision Committee outnumber the members of the Steering Committee by at least one); the other members of the Revision Committee are chosen to represent a range of opinions. They are often chosen from among those who make significant points in the First Consideration debate, when the subjects of amendments are often flagged up.

Synodical uncertainty

There will then be a period of time in which any member of the Synod can write in with proposed amendments to the draft legislation; all these amendments have to be discussed and voted on by the Revision Committee. Almost anything can be proposed at this stage, including, for example, all the other options in the Manchester report, and anything else anyone can think of, and it has to be considered and voted on. The draft legislation will then come back for Revision in full Synod, and amendments can also be proposed then, and, as we have seen, they can and do pass.

The outcome of the debate this July on the House of Bishops’ motion was a shock because the Synod had previously rejected calls for the so-called single clause Measure on three separate occasions. However, I suspect that the support of the majority of the House of Bishops for the code of practice option persuaded a number of members of Synod to change and vote for that option.

We should note that an amendment calling for further work on both statutory transfer and code of practice was narrowly defeated because the voting was by Houses, otherwise it would have been just carried (203 : 200). Had this amendment been solely for statutory transfer, it might have gained more votes; some voted against because it meant delay, rather than decision between the options.

We should also realize that had this vote been at the Final Approval stage, the legislation would not have passed, because it would then need a two-thirds majority in all three Houses of the Synod, and that was lacking in the House of Laity; in fact, the vote against in the House of Laity has increased over the last years: in 2005 it was 32%, in 2006 36% and this year 38%.

Under the Synods Constitution, unless and until the legislation reaches Final Approval, the mind of the Synod has not been definitively declared. We have seen how even then, Parliamentary approval and the Royal Assent are required before legislation can be implemented. There is a long way to go yet, and the possibility of real change.