The Catholic Group in Synod explains why there is a way we can get the women bishops legislation right

The current draft Measure is the wrong legislation for introducing women bishops; its consequences would be disastrous for the Church of England. Far from bringing closure, were this legislation to be passed, it would lead to more years of unseemly wrangling over the contents of the proposed Code of Practice.

The wrong legislation

Once the Code was established, judicial reviews in the secular courts would be the only way of resolving disputes over its application. We may expect a series of motions from the Diocese of Southwark calling for parts of the Code to be amended so as to reduce provision for traditionalists over time. These motions, and amendments to the Code, would only need a simple majority to pass. Eventually, there would be so little provision left that the traditionalist position would be excluded from the CofE.

Listening to the statistics

Recent research by Christian Research shows that 31% of practising members of the CofE are opposed to women bishops at the present time. Provision is therefore needed for nearly one-third of the CofE, not a tiny minority.

Christian Research also found that while 47.6% wanted to see women bishops as soon as possible, 21.5% wanted to see women bishops within the next 5 to 10 years. There is thus no overwhelming desire among practising CofE members for legislation to be passed this November. 82% wanted to see provision to enable traditionalists to remain in the CofE; given that the draft legislation does not provide properly for traditionalists, a large majority would want to see better legislation being brought forward.

A recent BBC poll found that while 80% of the population as a whole wanted to see women bishops, 80% also said they would not think any worse of the CofE if there were not women bishops. Again, it would not be a disaster were this legislation not to be passed in November.

The evidence of the statistics is that General Synod should take the further time and effort required to get this legislation right the first time.

Stifling the voice of the laity

The draft Measure would make lay people dependent on their clergy: a PCC could only request episcopal ministry from a male bishop if the incumbent were to agree with the request. There is no equivalent to the present Resolution A, whereby a PCC may decide not to permit the exercise of priestly ministry by women in their parish.

Refusing to provide for theological conviction

The draft Measure provides only that diocesan bishops must delegate certain aspects of episcopal ministry to a male bishop; incoherently, even male diocesan bishops are required to delegate to another male bishop!

Much is being made of the requirement of the new clause 5(1) C that the Code of Practice shall give guidance as to the selection of male bishops respecting the grounds for a PCC requesting a delegated male bishop. As one member of the House of Bishops has written, respect, in legal terms, ‘requires one person to be informed of another’s viewpoint and able to demonstrate how that information has shaped any action that follows.

The information cannot be entirely disregarded, nor does it have to be followed in a narrowly prescriptive way. The person’s viewpoint that is to be respected is not an ultimatum.’ There is therefore a world of difference between a Code of Practice giving

guidance about respect, and a legal requirement that the ministry of the delegated bishop be consistent with the theological convictions underlying the request. In any event, the requirement should be fully in the Measure, not in a Code of Practice.

The weakness of a Code

Unlike the original Measure, the provisions of a Code of Practice can be changed by a simple majority of the General Synod; no clear consensus is required for change. We should therefore not rely on a Code of Practice to provide for significant minorities. Bishops would not be obliged to follow the Code if they could show ‘cogent reasons’ for not doing so (e.g. the shortage of suitable bishops and priests, or the need for parishes to be amalgamated). The only way that the Code could be ‘enforced’ would be through judicial review in the secular courts, which few parishes could afford.

The illustrative draft Code of Practice is unclear about the extent of the delegation of episcopal functions, stipulating that clergy appointments and the licensing of clergy, readers and preachers would be ‘shared’ between diocesan and delegated bishops. The illustrative draft remains just that: the final form of the Code could only be brought to Synod by the House of Bishops for approval after the Measure has received the Royal Assent. No guarantees can be given at this stage as to the final contents of the Code, which only needs a simple majority to pass first time.

Two-tier episcopate – two-tier Church

A bishop is essentially an overseer, as well as a minister of the Word and Sacraments; oversight must involve jurisdiction. The draft Measure would mean that bishops provided for traditionalists would almost always have a limited jurisdiction delegated to them, rather than having jurisdiction in their own right – they would not have the freedom for independent action that diocesan bishops have.

Bishops for traditionalists would therefore be second-class bishops, thereby making traditionalists second-class Anglicans.

No guaranteed future

There is no provision in the Measure that there should not be discrimination against candidates for ordination on the grounds of their theological convictions regarding the ordination of women; there is not even any such provision in the illustrative draft Code of Practice. It is easy therefore to see that traditionalist candidates for ordination could be refused or restricted as time moves on.

There are no guarantees in the Measure that there would be an ongoing supply of bishops for traditionalists – the provision of special suffragan sees was removed by the Revision Committee; again, there is not even any such provision in the

illustrative draft Code of Practice. If no traditionalist bishops are appointed in the future, provision for traditionalists would simply cease, without any prior synodical decision.

A fatally flawed process

Contrary to normal practice, the legislative process was begun before there was a consensus on the substance of the provisions to be contained in the draft Measure; it was left to the legislative process itself to determine the substance of the provisions – which is not what the legislative process is designed for.

Time after time, votes by the slenderest of majorities led to weaker and weaker provisions for the minorities. Not surprisingly, the end result is a draft Measure that does not command enough consensus to pass at Final Approval. Its supporters are now reduced to unprincipled attempts to persuade the minority to abstain rather than vote, with their consciences, against this bad piece of legislation.

The right kind of legislation

The Church of England needs legislation that will provide fully and fairly for all her loyal members, as is clearly the desire of over 80% of practising members of the Church. We need legislation that will give a lasting settlement, not lead to further years of wrangling in synods and in the secular courts, resulting finally in the exclusion of traditional theological convictions from the CofE, and the narrowing of our Church’s diversity and comprehensiveness. ND