The House of Bishops’ Declaration: 1

In May Colin Podmore outlined the new provisions for those who cannot receive the ministry of women as priests and bishops. In June he looked at the Resolution of Disputes Procedure. This article begins to consider the contents of the House of Bishops’ Declaration which will replace the Act of Synod.

The Introduction

House of Bishops’ Declaration

on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests

(GS Misc 1076)


The character and calling of the Church of England are set out in the Preface to the Declaration of Assent, which all clergy are required to make at ordination and subsequently on admission to any office. As part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church it is called to proclaim afresh in each generation the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds.

Those who serve the Church of England in holy orders are required to affirm their loyalty to this `inheritance of faith’ and bring the grace and truth of Christ to this generation’ Bishops have a particular responsibility to gather God’s people and build up the Body of Christ. We have each promised at our consecration to promote peace and reconciliation in the Church and to seek to unite its members in a holy fellowship of truth and love.

The opening of all orders of ministry equally to women and men is a significant moment in the long history of this part of the Church Catholic. It brings with it new opportunities for building up the Body of Christ and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.

It also brings with it a particular responsibility for us, as a House of Bishops. As well as seeking to channel and nurture the energy and renewal that will flow from this development we have a duty to ensure that the welfare of the whole Church of England is sustained in all its theological depth and breadth. We accordingly commend this declaration to all members of the Church of England so that the good gifts that God has given to all His people maybe used to His glory.

The Five Guiding Principles

The Declaration adopts a new approach. In addition to specific obligations and rights (which are spelt out in somewhat more detail than in the Act of Synod), it enshrines five guiding principled against which actions can be measured. They are printed in bold to highlight their importance. In the Declaration they are unnumbered bullet points: they are numbered here for ease of reference.

Principles 1 and 2 are those which require things of us — things that we ought to be able to give. Principles 3, 4 and 5 offer the basis for our future in the Church of England.

Statement of guiding principles

5. The House reaffirms the five guiding principles which it first commended in May 2013 when submitting legislative proposals to the General Synod for the consecration of women to the episcopate and which the Synod welcomed in its resolution of 20 November 2013. They need to be read one with the other and held together in tension, rather than being applied selectively:

Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;

Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;

Since it continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England acknowledges that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;

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; and

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.

Principle 1: ‘True and lawful holders of the office which they occupy’

This principle states what the Church of England corporately holds, not what individual members of it may or may not believe. But in any case, it is not problematic.

To understand it correctly, we must bear in mind the distinction between office and order. With parish clergy this is easy, because the names are different. `Rector; `vicar; `priest in charge’, assistant curate; etc. are offices; `priest’ is an order of ministry. With bishops, however, we use the same word (`bishop’) for the office and the order, and that may cause confusion.

If the Rector of Barchester is a woman, we don’t say that the office of rector is vacant. She is the true and lawful holder of that office. She is the rector, but we cannot say that she is a priest. There is in fact much precedent for church offices that were originally held by clergy being heldby people who are not priests: there have been lay rectors — and, in cathedrals, lay canons and lay vicars.

Similarly, if the Bishop of Barchester is female, she will be the true and lawful holder of the office of diocesan bishop. We cannot say that she is a bishop in the sacramental sense (order), but as `holder of the office of diocesan bishop’ she will be a bishop in the other sense (office).

Principle 1: `Due respect and canonical obedience’

The Church of England expects us to show due respect to those who hold office in it. Office-holders should of course be given due respect. Everyone should be respected, including us!

The Declaration returns to the issue of canonical obedience later on, and so shall we. For the moment it suffices to say that canonical obedience is owed to the holder of the office of diocesan bishop, whether or not that person has been ordained to the order of bishop. A diocesan bishop has spiritual jurisdiction, and is owed canonical obedience, from the point when his election is confirmed. His ordination as a bishop sometimes occurs days, weeks or even months later. In both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church there are Ordinaries who hold jurisdiction equivalent to that of a diocesan bishop, and are owed canonical obedience, but are not bishops.

Principle 2: `A clear decision’

The Church of England has taken a decision, and that decision is clear. We may still hope and pray that in the fullness of time she may realize it to have been wrong. All sorts of things that we thought had been clearly decided in the past are

now questioned and in some cases overturned. No one can be certain that any `clear decision’ will not be questioned or even overturned by future generations. We cannot know what is held in the providence of God. This principle needs to be read in the light of Principle 3.

Principle 3: The `process of reception’ continues

The idea of a `process of reception’ was the foundation of the Act of Synod. It now returns as one of the five principles on which the new Declaration is based.

Some have misunderstood this `process of reception’ as a process within the Church of England that would be concluded at some point when the Church of England had come to a common mind on the subject. The existence of the Declaration demonstrates not only that after twenty years this has not occurred, but also that it is not expected to occur in the foreseeable future.

In fact, however, the `process of reception’ was never intended to refer to an internal process within the Church of England. The Act of Synod calls it a process of `discernment in the wider Church’ concerning the Church of England’s decision. The Declaration says precisely the same thing in slightly different words: the Church of England’s decision is set within a broader process of dïscernment..,wïthïn the whole Church of God:

The term `discernment’ refers to what ecclesiologists call `reception’ — the idea that a doctrine enunciated by a council or synod may in the end come to be `received by the whole Church — or to be rejected by the whole Church. The Church of England’s decision regarding women’s ordination is clear, but it cannot be regarded as absolute, because the Church of England is merely part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Orders belong to the whole Church, and in the end it is the whole Church that must decide on changes to them.

The `process of discernment’ or reception continues, and the Declaration acknowledges that.

Principle 4: True Anglicans

Principle 4 recognizes our position as one of `theological conviction’ (not backward conservatism or misogyny), and one that continues to be within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition. We are tolerated not out of pity and pastoral concern but because ours is a legitimate Anglican theological conviction. It is, of course, the classical Anglican position, and the Declaration says that it is not superseded by the Church of England’s more recent decisions.

This principle complies with Resolution III.2 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which called on the Communion’s churches `to affirm that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans’.

Principles 4 and 5: Flourishing within the Church of England’s life and structures

Because we hold a legitimate Anglican position, The Church of England remains committed to enabling [us] to flourish within its life and structures’ — not merely to exist, not merely to continue until we die out, but to flourish, to thrive.

The bishops and other authorities in the Church of England will need to be able to demonstrate (if necessary, to the Independent Reviewer) that what they do in respect of us is directed towards enabling us to flourish.

Principle 5 says that provision will be not only pastoral but also sacramental, that it is not time-limited (it is not terminal pastoral care) and again that it is there to enable us not merely to exist but to flourish (while ensuring that others can flourish too).

Principle 5: The highest possible degree of communion’

If we accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, we cannot say that we are not in communion’ with women bishops. The Decree on Ecumenism teaches that there are degrees of communion: those who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). So there is a communion that flows from our common baptism, albeit an imperfect communion.

Principle 5 calls on us to live in the highest degree of communion that is possible. But in saying this it recognizes that full communion will not be possible. Communion will be impaired, because the Church of England will no longer have an episcopate that enjoys full mutual recognition and interchangeability (just as it already does not have a priesthood of which that is true).

The Church of England will continue to be composed of Christians who share a common baptism and live in fellowship with each other and therefore in communion — albeit communion that is imperfect.

Within that canonical structure, the bishops, priests and people of The Society will enjoy full and unimpaired communion with each other.

Part of our vocation will be to keep a window of the Church of England open to the great Churches of East and West, and to continue a pattern of ministry that is in visible continuity with the Church through the ages and visibly congruent with what is upheld by the great majority of the Church throughout the world.

In future issues we shall look at how -these principles are to be applied in practice, and what the Declaration means for parishes, clergy and people. ND


A Pastoral Letter from the Council of Bishops
The approval of the Women Bishops legislation brings to an end a decade of debate about what provision should be made for those who are unable, for theological reasons, to receive the ministry of women as priests and bishops.

In the earlier stages of that debate we offered the Church of England a vision of how provision could be made with full ecclesiological integrity not just for us but also for the Church of England as a whole. It is now clear that the reality will be shaped differently, and will fall short of our ideal.

None the less, we believe that we can have confidence in our future as catholics who are called to live out our Christian vocation in the Church of England, maintaining a distinctive witness to the quest for the unity of the Church. The House of Bishops’ Declaration embodies a commitment to enabling us to flourish within the Church of England’s life and structures. It does so because our theological convictions about ministry and ordination remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition. As Resolution III.2 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference stated, `those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans’.

The Declaration assures us that bishops will continue to be consecrated within the Church of England who can provide episcopal ministry that accords with our theological convictions. It makes provision for parishes to gain access to that episcopal ministry by passing a new resolution, supported by a Resolution of Disputes Procedure established by regulations made under Canon, with an Independent Reviewer. We will be offering advice and resources to parishes to assist with this.

We note that bishops’ authority to exercise episcopal functions comes from their ordination as bishops, and that that authority is distinct from the legal authority that they receive by delegation from the diocesan bishop. The debate over the nature of provision for our future life as catholics within the Church of England has helped us to focus on this important point with greater clarity.

The Society will have a crucial role to play in providing a continuing sacramental life in which parishes, clergy and people are in full and uninterrupted communion with the bishop who ministers to them, and with each other. We will ensure that parishes receive support in articulating the theological convictions that the Society exists to embody and, where necessary, in participating in the Resolution of Disputes Procedure.

As your bishops, we want to thank you for your faithfulness during this long period of uncertainty. Now that the debate about provision is over and the House of Bishops’ Declaration is in place, we can look forward to a time of greater stability in which, by the grace of almighty God, we can all focus, with renewed energy, on proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, and on witnessing to him as we serve our local communities and our nation.

On behalf of the Council of Bishops