John Richardson on the importance of the 1993 Act of Synod

Recently I was at a meeting of evangelicals from the Diocese of Chelmsford which, at one stage, turned quite painful. The occasion was a discussion of the ‘Following Motion’ suggested by the Church of England Evangelical Council, to be put to deanery and diocesan synods considering the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure being proposed by the General Synod.

The Following Motion urges the House of Bishops to bring forward amendments to the Measure in order to strengthen the provision of episcopal oversight for those ‘unable on theological grounds to accept the ministry of women bishops’. Many evangelical Anglicans actually have no problem with this, but for the sake of those who do, the CEEC is sponsoring the motion specifically in the interests of evangelical unity.

Even so, in our own conversations it was clear that not everyone was willing to give their support, one of the stated reasons being that the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod – the legislation that provided for the ‘flying bishops’ – had created ‘a mess’.

The original Measure

As the discussion became more detailed, I found myself checking the specifics of the Act, but also looking back at the original Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure itself. And what

I found came as a surprise.

In what follows I may be mistaken both in terms of interpretation of the legislation and regarding what actually happened at the time and subsequently. Corrections will therefore be welcome. However, it seems to me that as the debate on women bishops nears its probable conclusion, there are things about the original provisions, and specifically the role of the Act of Synod, which have been forgotten.

First, there is the stark nature of the original Measure. This consists of three main parts plus a Schedule. The first simply allows the General Synod ‘to make provision by Canon for enabling a woman to be ordained to the office of priest’. The third contains general material relating to interpretation. But it is the second which is the most striking in the present context, given that it allowed an existing diocesan bishop to ‘opt out’ with his entire diocese:

‘(1) A bishop of a diocese in office at the relevant date [of the enabling Canon] may make any one or more of the following declarations –

that a woman is not to be ordained within the diocese to the office of priest; or
that a woman is not to be instituted or licensed to the office of incumbent or priest-in-charge of a benefice, or of team vicar for a benefice, within the diocese; or
that a woman is not to be given a licence or permission to officiate as a priest within the diocese.’
The only thing a woman could do in such a diocese, according to the Measure, was ‘officiate as a priest in a church or chapel for one period of not more than seven days in any period of three months without reference to the bishop or other Ordinary’ [2.2.7].

The Act of Synod

And here is where the Act of Synod comes in. Bear in mind, however, that when the Measure went before Parliament, the Act itself had not been passed, or even presented to the General Synod. It was simply a plan in the House of Bishops to present the Act to the Synod the week after Parliament approved the Measure.

It is therefore important to read at length what the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd George Carey, had to say in the House of Lords on 2 November. Note especially the highlighted sections (the quotation is necessarily shortened):

‘[…] Much attention has been focused on Clause 2 of the Measure which provides that a diocesan bishop, who is in office when the canon enabling women to be ordained priest is promulged, may make one or more of three declarations.

By making all three of these declarations, a diocesan bishop could in effect exclude women priests from his diocese.

‘[However …]

‘The potential significance of Clause 2 has substantially lessened as a result of the pastoral arrangements which the House of Bishops wishes to put in place once the canon is promulged. […] ‘The arrangements the House envisages are designed to ensure that appropriate pastoral episcopal care is provided for those in favour and those opposed to the legislation, without undermining the authority of the diocesan bishop. Our intention is to give continued space within the Church of England to those of differing views on this subject. The arrangements are embodied in an Act of Synod, which the General Synod will be invited to approve when it meets in London next week.’

Provision for those in favour

Thus the Act of Synod, whilst certainly having in mind the particular interests of those opposed to women priests, also made provision ‘for those in favour’, specifically as follows:

‘11 (1) … where the bishop of the diocese has indicated that he is opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and, in case of a bishop in office at the relevant date, that he is unwilling to make a declaration under section 2 thereof, the ordination to the priesthood of women from the diocese and their licensing and institution shall be carried out by the archbishop concerned, either personally or through a bishop acting as his commissary; and the archbishop shall cause the archiepiscopal seal to be affixed to any documents that are needed for that purpose.

(2) The archbishop shall act under subsection (1) above either attherequest of the diocesan bishop concerned or in pursuance of his metropolitical jurisdiction, but shall not so act unless he is satisfied that the diocesan bishop concerned has no objection. (3) Subsection (1) above shall not apply where the bishop of a diocese has made arrangements for the ordination of women to the priesthood and their licensing and institution to be carried out by another bishop’ [Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993].
Part of the total package

Hence, as the 2004 report of the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Women in the Episcopate observed, the Act of Synod not only took into account the view of those opposed to women priests but ‘it made provision for the ordination, licensing and institution of women priests in dioceses where the diocesan bishop was opposed to the ordination of women priests’ [Women Bishops in the Church of England? 2004, 4.2.47].

The Act of Synod, therefore, was not offered simply as a ‘messy’ response to the demands of traditionalists, but was an important part of a total package presented to embrace both sides. As Archbishop Carey said, for example, ‘the potential significance of Clause 2’ of the original Measure was ‘substantially lessened’ by the Act of Synod.

Passionate closing speech

Moreover, it is clear from the Hansard record of the debate in the House of Lords that the assurances being given about the Act of Synod were fundamental to the successful passage of the Measure itself at the time. What Parliament considered was not simply the Measure in isolation, but a combined package of ‘Measure and Act’. The passionate closing speech of the Archbishop of York, one of the chief architects of the Act, bears this out:

‘People have said, ‘Well, it is possible to revert an Act of Synod’. Of course, it is possible to revert anything, even legislation. However, as I am sure that your Lordships realise, it is not very easy to reverse things in the Church of England; indeed, it is not easy to do anything in the Church of England, especially if one is trying to undo something. Any motion of that kind requires the approval of all three Houses. Therefore, once you have something, it is really quite hard to get rid of it. I believe that the House can, with confidence, vote for the Measures before us unamended. I feel that we will all come together and that the synod will, next week, see the point of enshrining this treasured diversity of the Church of England in the Act of Synod’ (emphasis added).

Short-lived safeguards

Yet the words of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy earlier in the same debate are also worth quoting at length:

‘I myself asked the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury whether it was envisaged that the Act of Synod would operate in perpetuity or whether it would be in the nature of a temporary measure which would cease to operate at some future date. He replied that it was the intention that it should be permanent and that they were not thinking of rescinding it or anything like that. Then he added the caveat, ‘with the goodwill of the House of Bishops’. He went on to say that of course anything could happen in the future.

‘That is just the trouble. The fact is that the safeguards should have been incorporated in the Measure for the ordination of women. I feel that the General Synod underestimated the strength of the opposition to the Measure and thought that it would get it through with only such safeguards as are in Clause 2. I believe that it became clear to them that the majority of the members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, even many of them who supported the ordination of women, were concerned as to the efficacy of those safeguards and felt that they might be faced with an adverse vote in the committee. They produced the Manchester Declaration Mark II and the proposed Act of Synod very quickly. I am cynical enough to suspect that that was done out of necessity in order to get the Measure through Parliament and that, had the Ecclesiastical Committee in general not expressed such concern at the unfairness with which it was proposed to treat orthodox clergy and members of the Church, nothing would have been done at all.’

Indeed, in the light of the Archbishop of York’s comments, her words now seem entirely prescient:

‘I want to concentrate on the safeguards for those who hold orthodox Anglican views, because I am concerned that those safeguards will be short lived. [ … ] They are to be enshrined only in an Act of Synod, which can be amended or rescinded at any time by a simple majority in the General Synod. Since we have no real guarantee that diocesan bishops who are opposed to the ordination of women will continue to be appointed, we wonder how long it will be before there is not one single bishop in the Church of England who does not support the ordination of women and who can therefore act as a provincial episcopal visitor to those who do not.’

Lessons for the future

It is the history of what happened subsequent to 1993 that makes the need for ‘proper provision’ so urgent in the eyes of those who today remain opposed to the consecration of women as bishops.

The Act of Synod provided that ‘There will be no discrimination against candidates either for ordination or for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views about the ordination of women to the priesthood.’ And yet there has clearly been such discrimination.

The Archbishop of Canterbury suggested to a Peer that the Act of Synod would be ‘permanent’, and the Archbishop of York amusingly pointed out how hard it is to change things in the Church of England. And yet the Act of Synod has long been under threat and may soon be repealed.

Safeguards, provisions and assurances were offered and put in place in one generation, only for the current generation to propose removing them at a stroke. And, of course, Parliament itself has changed its tune and may even be willing to force the Church of England to change accordingly.

No doubt, few if any of those opposing the request of ‘proper provision’ will think in terms of ‘betrayal’. And yet the words spoken just two decades ago do seem to tell a different story. The Act of Synod was vital then to giving supporters of women’s ordination what they wanted, when they wanted it, and that ought to be remembered in the current debate. But what ought also to be remembered, and acknowledged on both sides, is that the safeguards last time were not in the Measure. This time, they surely must be. ND