Untying the knot

Paul Benfield explains the latest proposed legislation on Women in the Episcopate

The Report from the Steering Committee for the Draft legislation on Women in the Episcopate was published on 25 October 2013. It was an unusual committee in that of its fifteen members, five had voted against the final approval of the last legislation in November 2012. It had been set up in this way, at the suggestion of the Bishop of Wilesden, to see if a small group could reach agreement on a way forward to allow the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England, but also to provide space for those who could not accept them. Thirteen of the members commended the committee’s proposals to General Synod as ‘the best way forward for the Church of England in its ministry and mission and a possibility of securing an early resolution of this unfinished business,’ while two members, of which I was one, abstained.

The task of the Steering Committee was not to consider whether women should become bishops nor, ‘given the decision taken by Synod in July, how extensive the legislation should be, but rather how best, given the decisions already reached, we might move forward together in a way that maintains the breadth and rich diversity of the Church of England.’ In what follows I have tried to give a factual account of the proposals, without comment, drawing wherever possible on the exact wording of the relevant documents.

Guiding Principles

The proposals are based on five guiding principles which were first commended by the House of Bishops in May 2013 and which were published in the October 2013 edition of New Directions under the heading ‘The Five Propositions’ by which they were then known. These five guiding principles ‘must be read one with the other and held in tension, rather than being applied selectively.’ So, for example, whilst they say that those whom the Church of England has ‘duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve respect and canonical obedience’, they go on to say that ‘since those within the Church of England, who on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.’

Again, though: ‘Anyone who minsters within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter [of women bishops]’ nevertheless, ‘Pastoral and Sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.’

Package of Proposals

The proposals form a package of four documents which must be read together. If one takes any one of the documents on its own one gets a distorted and unbalanced view of the package. The documents are a Draft Measure, a Draft Amending Canon, a Draft House of Bishops Declaration and Draft Regulations for Resolution of Disputes Procedure. The Report makes it clear that all four are part of an overall balanced package and that the Declaration and Disputes Resolution Procedure need to be agreed before the Measure and Canon are brought to final approval.


The draft measure is relatively simple and straightforward. It repeals the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 in its entirety and makes it lawful for the General Synod to make provision by canon for the ordination of women and men to the office of bishop and priest.

Amending Canon

The draft canon confers the authority to consecrate women as bishops and continues the authority to allow women to be consecrated as priests. It revokes the canons which made special provisions for the ordination of women as deacons and priests, Henceforth there will be no distinction in the canons concerning ordination between men and women.

The canon also requires the House of Bishops to make regulations prescribing a procedure for resolutions of disputes arising from the arrangements contained in the House of Bishops’ Declaration. Any changes to those regulations once made by the House of Bishops must be agreed by a two thirds majority of each House of the General Synod.

House of Bishops’ Declaration

The Declaration sets out the five guiding principles referred to above and goes on to say that the outworking of these principles needs to be accompanied by simplicity, reciprocity and mutuality.

The arrangements for parishes are that a PCC may pass a motion requesting arrangements to be made in accordance with the Declaration. There are procedural requirements for the passing of a resolution which mean that normally there must be four weeks’ notice of the meeting and the meeting must be attended by two-thirds of the members or the motion must be passed by a majority of the members entitled to be present. The recommended form of motion is: ‘This PCC requests, on grounds of theological conviction, that arrangements be made for it in accordance with the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests’. Resolutions may be rescinded at any time.

Where a resolution has been passed, and before clergy are appointed to the parish or a bishop chosen by the diocesan bishop to provide oversight, there will need to be consultation between bishop and parish to ascertain the nature of the theological conviction because that conviction will vary according to the tradition of the parish concerned. The House of Bishops will provide guidance for bishops and parishes to help facilitate those conversations.

Where there is any difficulty between a patron and a parish which has passed a resolution (such as a patron wishing to present a woman priest to the benefice when this would not be acceptable to the parish) the diocesan bishop must ‘do all in his or her power to achieve and outcome that respects the declared view of the parish and protects the parish representatives from having to resort to their own power of veto under the Patronage (Benefices) Measure 1986.’

The choice of a bishop to undertake ministry in respect of a parish which has passed a resolution is for the relevant diocesan bishop to make with a view to avoiding conflict with the theological conviction underlying the parish resolution. The choice should be made from among the male bishops who are members of the diocesan synod of that or another diocese of the Church of England. In other words the bishop must be a serving bishop and not retired. In all cases the diocesan bishop should seek to ensure that pastoral and sacramental ministry is provided in accordance with the five guiding principles.

The House of Bishops affirms in the Declaration the importance of there continuing to be consecrations of bishops within the Church of England to enable such ministry to be provided and the fact that the sees of Ebbsfleet, Richborough and Beverley will remain in existence will provide one of a range of means by which the Archbishops will ensure that a suitable supply of bishops continues. The House also accepts that the presence in the College of Bishops of at least one bishop who takes the Conservative Evangelical view on headship is important for sustaining the necessary climate of trust.

The Declaration states that since the cathedral is the seat of the bishop the House does not believe that arrangements for parishes can apply to cathedrals, even in the case of parish church cathedrals. However, it goes on to say that gender or theological conviction in relation to the ordained ministry of women should not be an obstacle to appointment as dean or cathedral canon.

The House undertakes that should it be minded to propose changes to the Declaration ‘it will consult the General Synod and will not proceed with its proposals unless they command two-thirds majorities in all three Houses’.

Resolution of Disputes Regulations

These regulations would be made by the House of Bishops under canon. Under them the Archbishops must appoint an Independent Reviewer with the concurrence of the Chairs of the Houses of Clergy and Laity. In discharging his or her functions the Independent Reviewer must act impartially and fairly and must have regard to the ‘five guiding principles’ referred to in the House of Bishops’ Declaration.

PCCs may bring a grievance in respect of any action taken or failure to act in accordance with that part of the House of Bishops Declaration concerning parishes. The grievance may be against any archbishop, bishop, archdeacon, rural dean or minister having the cure of souls. The reviewer must normally complete the review within two months. The procedure is very flexible and may include an oral hearing and the appointment of one or more experts to assist the reviewer. On the conclusion of the review the reviewer will issue a decision, which may include recommendations, and this decision must be published unless the reviewer considers that there are good reasons for not doing so.

In addition to grievances brought by PCCs, any person may raise a concern with the Independent Reviewer in relation to any aspect of the operation of the House of Bishop’s Declaration. Any such concern may relate to more than one act or omission under the House of Bishops’ Declaration and to more than one parish or diocese. Following the raising of such a concern the Reviewer may undertake an inquiry.

The Independent Reviewer must provide an annual report, which must be published.

The Steering Committee Report, in explaining the Independent Review process states:

‘Like other ombudsmen, the Independent Reviewer would have no powers to impose penalties as a result of his or her findings. But the ability to publish reports critical of actions taken would in practice have a significant impact. Whether the fact that a cleric was found by the Independent Reviewer to have acted inconsistently with the House of Bishops’ Declaration might form the basis for a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure is uncertain and would depend on future decisions of courts and tribunals under the Measure.’


The members of the Steering Committee all agreed that ‘the balanced package of Draft Measure, Amending Canon, House of Bishops’ Declaration and Disputes Resolution Procedure that, together, we have produced gives full and effective expression to the motion [passed by Synod in July]’. We ventured to suggest that when the package of proposals comes to be debated by Synod in November ‘this debate might be an occasion when the Synod might be prepared to focus more on how to nurture the degree of consensus that has started to emerge rather than having a series of detailed and potentially divisive debates on amendments.’ ND