How should we vote about women bishops?

On Monday I attended a really helpful meeting in anticipation of the Diocesan Synod vote on the motion from General Synod proposing a way forward on women bishops. This essentially proposes a ‘middle way’ between simply going ahead, and making a legally structured provision for those disagreeing. It proposes to put in place delegated (rather than transferred) episcopal oversight, accessed by a Letter of Request from a PCC, with a Code of Practice ensuring that the provision is adequate. (Having just written this, I realise how complex the whole thing is, and baffling to those who have not been following closely.)

The meeting was a good opportunity to explore some issues, but I left it feeling very concerned about the whole process.

[My own position is that I am a ‘traditionalist’, in that I think the decisions of the C of E should be shaped by Scripture, but as you will see from other posts on my blog I am quite convinced that Scripture allows women to exercise all levels of ministry in the church.]

1. As my initial comment shows, I think the issues are very complex; I spent five years on Synod, and teach in a theological college, and I find myself working hard to get my head around the issues. During the evening it became clear at some important points that we did not have all the information we needed, and I worry about how we are going to vote in the diocese without better understanding. Though I hesitate to suggest it, we almost need to understand all the reasons why General Synod voted the way it did, and in particular the arguments against the options that were rejected. I realise that GS members will be there at Diocesan Synod, but this it is a tough task to explain all that happened.

2. As I understand it,the reason why Transferred Episcopal Authority (TEA) was rejected as a way of making provision for those opposed to having women bishops was that it would,in effect, have created a parallel diocesan structure, which would imply ‘no go’ areas not only for women, but for anyone who had been associated with women. (Notice that for Catholics, it is not enough to have a man; it must be a man who has not ordained women. This has been criticised as a ‘theology of taint’; my own view is that it betrays a misunderstanding about the nature of episcopal authority—and logically it should not be an issue for evangelical traditionalists.)

3. TEA would also have created a reciprocal no-go area in the rest of the church for those under the TEA. In other words, this would be a separate denomination in all but name. This is emphatically *not* have the C of E as a ‘broad church’. Several times on Monday this was mentioned as a virtue; I don’t happen to believe this, but it is certainly clear that this sort of parallel arrangement does not preserve the broad nature of the Church, but rather separates us into different factions.

4. As another alternative to General Synod’s proposal, the idea of a Society was proposed, or rather, two Societies, one for ‘Catholic’ traditionalists, and one for evangelical traditionalists. These would operate in a way similar to the Societies of those in religious orders, so members would look to the bishops of the Societies, rather than to their diocesans, for authority and leadership.

I haven’t had a chance to look at this in detail, but I struggle for myself to see how the ‘Society’ model would really differ from TEA in creating a parallel structure. Those in a Society would relate to each other, and those tainted by association with women priests would not be allowed in the Society. So again we would in effect have a strong move towards become two (or perhaps three) denominations.

5. More generally, any ‘legal’ structure would have a similar effect, which is why Synod rejected this approach in favour of delegated episcopal authority invited by letter of request with a Code of Practice—though as was pointed out in the meeting, such a Code of Practice would in fact have legal force (as a process) without creating a legal structure.

6. What was really difficult in the whole discussion was the language used the implications of the different options. Earlier, one of the presenters had highlighted how much discussion there had been (nearly 600 pages of reports) over how many years. But the response was ‘In all these reports we still don’t have what we want, so we have not been listened to.’ But to confuse ‘being listened to’ with ‘getting what you want’ is a very dangerous thing, and it makes sensible discussion very difficult. It is clear that the whole process is going to test our patience and love for one another…

7. This led to some actual misleading presentation. Another of the arguments put forward was that the loss of the ability to vote for Resolutions A, B and C would mean an unscrupulous incumbent could invite a woman to preside in a ‘traditionalist’ parish, and there was a risk that the sending of a Letter of Request for delegated episcopal oversight could be blocked. But on questioning, it became clear that it was still the PCC who issue the letter, the same PCC who have right of veto in parochial appointments. So this argument sounded more like scaremongering than a reasoned argument. Similarly, the resolutions of CEEC were cited as a reason for caution. But as a member of CEEC I know that the formal resolution did not represent the mind of CEEC, and CEEC itself is not in fact representative of evangelicals in the C of E as a whole.

8. Quite a number suggested that the main reason we needed to go ahead was because of how the wider world viewed the Church’s attitude to women. I agree that this is important, but of course if this is the main reason for decisions it will lead us in a particular direction on the question of same-sex relations with which many would rightly disagree.

9. The Archdeacon of Nottingham expressed his view that we should vote for what traditionalists want, even if that is parallel jurisdiction, in order to ensure the measure to ordain women bishops goes ahead. I am really worried by this approach, since (as has been shown by the settlement in 1992), we will have to live with the consequences of what we agree for a very long time to come.

I am not sure I have an answer to all these concerns. Any suggestions welcome!

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24 thoughts on “How should we vote about women bishops?”

  1. I think why you still have concerns, Ian, was that everyone who has been through the last 5 years of the Synodical process also has concerns. The legislation that has been sent out is the best we have been able to do at General Synod. It is the least worst option.

    I think I want to respond to a couple of your concerns though. Firstly, I think you are right to be anxious about the Archdeacon of Nottingham’s point. An opposite argument was made to me by a diocesan bishop very recently, namely that it will simply be the fear of losing the measure completely that will persuade some sceptics to vote for it rather than agin.

    Secondly,I was speaking at one of our inner urban Deanery Synods last night (and the complexities of the issues were challenging for everyone in the room), but what was a strong similarity between this experience and the experience of my own suburban Team PCC was the sense of most thoughtful people present that despite the importance of theology, tradition and respect for minority opinions, this issue was so out of date and irrelevant that our credibility was severely at stake. As one person put it, “most of us thought this issue had already been dealt with..why can’t opponents accept that.” Someone last night said that she felt that it wasn’t that the church was in danger of excluding opponents, but that they were in danger of excluding themselves. I think this is how minorities often behave.

    Some random thoughts…

  2. Thanks Ian this is really helpful, we had a meeting in our Deanery on Tuesday and the same issues arose, though i don’t think ours was quite so careful in considering some of the other options, nor showing understanding of why the current motion is set before us in this form and why others were rejected. What also was unclear in our meeting was if a church requires some kind of different oversight then who will be giving this, will it be the suffragan, in which case that means you couldn’t have two women Bishops in a Diocese – which I’d think is unlikely in the short term, but?

    The nub of the question to me seems to me about who holds the power, and whether the parish/vicar do, or the bishop. Since those against women bishops wouldn’t be able to accept the ‘transfer’ of authority by the woman bishop, is it about how we square that question and if we can square this question we have the answer. Not being an expert I don’t know if this is possible unless its a legal position, but I think the idea of a letter requesting delegation of authority seems a sensible one to me. I’m not convinced by the request for a legal committment, but then I’m not convinced by the code of practice, particularly as it has not been written and diocese’s won’t get to vote on it, just General Synod.

    So I don’t know if anyone has the answer to the question of whether such a proposed letter would allow the power to be transferred in a way that everyone can cope with.

    Plus I would still suggest we need a conversation about what a Bishop is, and does and where the authority should lie?

  3. Simon, thanks for those helpful reflections. The two directions on the ‘it won’t go through’ concern are fascinating!

    I guess the nuance on the ‘we are so out of date’ issue is that, given that the Church has decided there is no theological objection, we should now get a move on. This ‘given’ is really crucial as a qualification to the ‘relevance’ question.

    The delay here is no longer that as a whole church we are not clear of the rightness of the change, but that we are anxious about how to make provision for the minority. But this should not be a cause of undue delay.


  4. I am not as well read on this subject as I would like to be, but with my limited understanding the problem seems to be the weight people put on each of the three ‘pillars’ of Anglicanism; Scripture, Tradition & Reason.
    Tradition has it that for centuries the church has been led by men.
    Scripture clearly shows women and men are equal (Gen 1:27 & Gal 3:26-28) and shows women involved in the leadership and expansion of the New testament Church (and involved in very senior leadership-Romans 16), but then seems to contradict itself in some of the pastoral letters.
    Reason, looking at the world around us, shows that women are capable of leading (and leading spiritually) at the highest levels. The Holy Spirit is working powerfully through many women priests I know, so God seems very happy to use women in ministry.
    I see some similarities in the arguments in the early church between Arius and Athenasius about the nature of Jesus. In the end, if I remember correctly, it was Athenasius’ observation ‘Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi’ (as we worship so we believe) that was decisive in his ‘victory’ for orthodoxy; the spirit prompts us to worship Christ, therefore he is God.
    If ‘Tradition’ points one way, ‘Reason’ another and ‘Scripture’ is uncertain (although I would argue that the evidence of women in senior leadership the NT church means that the pastoral letters must have been written to a specific context), then I think we should look to what the Spirit is doing in the church today.
    With the witness of the powerful work of the Spirit in the ministry of women priests, then I cannot see why they should not be Priests, Bishops or even Archbishops.
    As I came to a concious awareness of God’s love for me and started attending church in 2000, then for me women priests have always been the norm. So I do not have the weight of tradition that people have who have grown up in a church with only male priests.
    The simplistic way that this issue is reported in the media seems to add to the confusion in that they say it is the ‘Traditionalists’ or ‘AngloCatholic’ wing of the church that are against the idea of women. However, I know many ‘Traditionalists’ and ‘AngloCatholics’ that are supportive of women bishops. So the divisions in the church over this are not that simple.
    One of the reasons that I am proud to be an Anglican is the breadth of the church and the desire to respect each other’s theologies and styles of worship, but I believe that we cannot fudge this decision.
    I have a friend that has gone over the ordinariat and I pray that he will be blessed in this. I pray that it will free him up to work with God in helping to build His kingdom, rather than feeling a constant tension between his beliefs and those of church to which he belongs.
    Likewise, I believe that we cannot put any restrictions on the advancement of women in the Church of England. God has gifted many women in leadership and has called them into the priesthood, I believe we need to recognise this and free them up to work with God in helping to build His kingdom, rather than feeling a constant tension between their beliefs and those of church to which they belong.
    Whilst I would be sad to see people leave the church of England, I do not believe that we can go on in this crippled state trying to hold some things together that cannot be held together. It may mean short term pain, but for the long term good I think we need to face it.

  5. Tamsin, I’m not sure whether you meeting was less clear than our meeting–or less clear than this posting!

    I am quite clear that the delegated episcopal oversight would normally NOT be from within the diocese, not least because it would mean that the suffragan could not be involved in ordinations of women, which would get very complicated. As I understand it, there is no particular prescription about how this works, BUT the Code of Practice would specify that it would need to be and be seen to be adequate.

    The Letter of Request would come from the PCC, just as votes for Resolutions A, B and C do now. But you are right–there are clearly some strange ideas about episcopal authority (what it is and where it comes from) around…

  6. Thanks for the reflection Barry. I agree with you that this is how people are shaped, but I think the idea of a ‘three legged stool’ is a misunderstanding of Anglican identity. It is Scripture that shapes us; but we understand this through reason and tradition (making sense of Scripture and seeing how previous generations have made sense of it).

    This is a very different model. As you can see from my other posts, there is a good deal of evidence that we have in past resisted what Scripture is saying, though there has often been a minority report (as it were). I am always surprised that the example of the Salvation Army is not cited, who have had women in leadership for many a long year.

  7. Thanks for this discussion, Ian.

    I thnk that the sociology of Christian Ministry has always reflected that of the society being served. It’s part of being the Body of Christ incarnate in the real world.

    In the Early Church, for example, take the Letter to the Romans, there was a gender balanced leadership, incuding a female apostle. Even an apostle who believed wmen had to wear hats and not cut their hair could see a fundamental equality in Christ. As practices began to move towards a more institutionalised hierarchical understanding of ordination, The Church ordained women, especially to minor orders right up to the niddle ages. However the male dominated public culture of the Roman Empire (hardly a gospel value) shaped a male dominated Church modelled on Imperialism. the shutters came down well ansd truly in the eleventh century, driven by a lot of extremely tendentious theory from Aristotle and others about women not having brains because the sperm was too cold when they were conceived. Again, the praxis was driven by the prevailing philosophy around. That continued, albeit in less bizarre forms, to validate a male only model, right up to the mid twentieth century.

    Led by the Holy Spirit, we have now come a long way towards recovering more vibrant, Spirit-led and fluid forms of ministry, ordained and unordained, reflected in the NT. Hallelujah, say I. God has called and gifted many women in ordained ministry, and, as the Church begins to recover from the institutional discrimination of former years it may begin to recover some of its moral credibility in mission that has been lost.

    It is tragic that a movement of the Spirit which has yielded great blessing should be presented as a problem all the time because of the doubts of a tiny minority about it, for a whole ragbag of different and often completely incompatible reasons. The best way to help us all is to sit down and work out personally who should do what and how, as honestly as possible.

    What is certain is that the duplicity and fudging of the Church of England’s incoherent ecclesiology since the 90’s has not solved the problem for everybody. An integrated society where the blacks are allowed on the bus, as long as they sit in the back, so that a few of the whites can sit at the front and tell themselves nothing has changed, is not an integrated society. Time to grow up and get real.

  8. That’s interesting Alan. For me, the crucial issue you highlight here is that there is precedent in the New Testament. Without that I don’t think I would be in support…

    I think there is something of an anticipation of the power of Roman culture in the relatively conservative tone of the ethics of the haustafeln in many of the NT letters, though I think that is of a different kind from the changes that happened subsequently.

  9. Thank you for a thoughtful post which highlights many of the tensions felt by those trying make decisions – though not, as Simon commented, by the majority of those we meet in daily ministry who just see the church dithering on something they thought had already been decided. (And I think that we need to take this perception seriously – it could be one way in which God is asking us to listen)

    But I share your concern with the Archdeacon’s comment. It does seem a very cynical approach to something that affects the whole way the church does its theology of what it means to be church and what role bishops play in the church and its mission. Decisions made from fear are not often good decisions in the long term. I agree, too, about your point about living with the consequences – and it is not just the practical consequences but the theological ones. A speaker at a recent meeting on this issuse said that one of the real questions is “What sort of church do we want to be” .
    The other reason why his reasoning is questionable is that it is based on a premise that is without foundation – that is, that those who want women bishops will accept anything as long is it delivers women who can wear a mitre, and this is just not the case. What is at the root of the move to allow women to be ordained bishops is to remove the theological anomaly which allows women to be priest but not bishops, but more importantly, to allow the C of E to become a place wehre the ministry of both women and men can flousish in many ways. Setting up a scheme whereby women are a different sort of bishop from men, is not the sort of church where all can flourish. If the archdeacon belives that women should be bishops, then to keep integrity he should be involving himself in this sort of conversation to show that it is in the interests of the church – if he doesn’t, then he should say this too.

    But even more significantly, there is abslutely no evidence that to “give opponents what they want” will ensure that the legislation goes through – there will just be another group of opponents to the new legislation created. And even if such legislation goes through Synod and Parliament, it is very doubtful that many women of the calibre of bishop would agree to be appointed because their future ministry would marked by potential conflict over which bishop had authority for what (Senior women said as much in 2009 and there is no evidence that they have changed their minds) I expect there would also be good men who would take a similar view.
    The legislation is not perfect for anyone – but it seems the best we can have where we are now.

  10. Ian, I write as a canon lawyer and a member of the Ecclesiastical Law Society since 1988. I am afraid that the arguments which you have marshalled do not take in to account the complexity of either synodical legislation (which is a species of Act of Parliament) or the current state of play in secular law concerning Equality legislation.

    Anything less than a statutory existence for those opposed to the Measure will render it unacceptable to them. They have been thoroughly marginalised for decades, and quite rightly view a Code of Practice as a wholly inadequate concession by those who wish to have, as far as possible, a single clause Measure.

    Indeed, that is what it is as it stands, because a Code of Practice, even one referred to in the Measure, does not have the force of law which the Measure provides for those who support the ordination of women as bishops. Worse than that, the Code of Practice, unless given statutory force, is likely to be struck down in the courts as an unlawful provision contrary to equality legislation.

    Following the recent General Synod elections, it is unlikely that the Measure as it stands, repealing all the existing provisions of the 1992 legislation, and providing in their place a voluntary Code of Practice, will achieve 2/3 majorities in either the House of Laity or the House of Clergy. I hear that it may even run into difficulties in the House of Bishops.

    The only way to get it on to the statute book, and enable women to become bishops in the Church of England, is for the Measure to be amended significantly, either by bringing the Code of Practice provisions, suitably strengthened, into the Measure itself, or by including in the Measure the current provisions, which will themselves need to be strengthened to enable conservative bishops to exercise their ministry in their own right, not as someone else’s delegate.

    Otherwise the Measure will fail in this Synod, and it can only begin again in a new Synod, starting in 2015.

  11. Stephen,
    Can I respond to a couple of your points. Firstly, the Measure requires Bishops to “have regard for” the STATUTORY Code of Practice. Synod lawyers have said there is “an increasing tendency to enforce provision made in Codes of Practice which are not intrinsically binding in law.” This makes a Code subject to judicial review and a Bishop who could be shown to have disregarded the Code would be liable for sanction.
    Second, this point about ‘marginalisation’ is entirely specious. Opponents have continued to have an honoured place within the Church of England (and will continue to do so even when the Measure is passed). It is not at all in the interests of bishops to ‘marginalise’ anyone within the church – legally, pastorally or for the sake of the mission of the Church of England.

    Thirdly, we simply don’t know about the numbers in any of the three Houses of Synod. As of today, there may well be notional numbers to prevent the Measure being passed if it were voted on today. But we still have the Dioceses to report, we still have a Final Revision stage and we still have the moment when people have to decide. Within the past week I’ve heard of a senior bishop opposed to the Measure saying he think it will pass and a senior bishop in favour saying that the fear of looking utterly ridiculous in the nation will be enough to persuade enough people to vote for or abstain.

    Fourthly, your comment about equality legislation needs further clarification. You and I both heard the Second Church Estates Commissioner (an MP) say that Parliament simply won’t countenance discriminatory legislation sent to it from the Church. It could therefore be argued that the passage of the Measure through Parliament can only be guaranteed if the Measure is sent to it as currently drafted, or even with less provision for opponents.

    I continue to believe that what we have is the least worst option available. I would have preferred something simpler, but this is as far as I can go to maintain the unity of the Church.

    And it’s about time we got to know each other a little better at General Synod!

    Pax et bonum

  12. Ian, thanks for this. I share your frustration!
    Bottom line is that there are enough votes to block things as they stand on GS – I’ve seen the nsmes and figures.
    secondly, it is not till this whole thing gets down to deanery level – if diocese dare, and people realise that Mrs Bloggs from St Agnes on the Hump in the parish next to them with whom they have suffered deanery synods for 20 yearsm, will effectivekly feel kicked out of the CofE, that they will realise how mad just four clergy were to abstain or go to the loo in the York synod when ++R and J put forward their motion. if it had been in London and ++R had led, it would have got carried. Most new evangelical bishops who support women’s ministry, as I do, do not want to be the bishops who ‘preside; over the split in their diocese ovber WBs.
    Many evangelicals are ambivilent to WBs, but recognise that whatever structure ios et re this will be the benchmark for the Gay Bishop debate which will undoubtedly come within the next 5 years.
    I feel dreadfully sorry for women colleagues whose ministry is thwarted, yet I also feel very sad for people like my brother who, after 30+ years, had gone over to the Ordinariate, despite my best endevours to persuade him to stay.

  13. Clearly, we cannot have a situation where there are no-go areas for bishops who happen to be women in their owe dioceses, or any sense in which the exercise of episcopal authority is inhibited in any way but the ‘co-ordinate authority’ idea mooted by the Archbishops. On the other hand, I am very concerned indeed about the further haemorrhage of traditionalist from both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings should the legislation go forward as presently formulated, which is what I fear.

    I think we seriously need to re-visit the mixed economy of different traditions existing side by side. For me, while I am in favour of women being consecrated as bishops, it should not be at the cost of driving others out of the Church of England. I think that the General Synod needs seriously to re-visit the special diocese idea. Here I would envisage a special diocese for each of the two Providences, with their own diocesan who is a man (leaving all the existing dioceses open to the appointment of woman who can exercise their authority without impediment). The only provision would be that parish who voted by a large enough majority to join the special traditionalist diocese could do so (this would not inhibit the exercise of episcopal authority by any woman bishop, since the diocesan boundaries would simply be re-defined, and in any case, if a bishop is to minister is a different diocese, it is always at the invitation of the diocesan concerned). This would be a safety net (and the only one, I would suggest), and it would be reversible by a much smaller majority. To avoid too much distraction, a vote on this in any parish, either way, could not take place more than, say, once every five years. The effect of this would allow those who conscientiously have difficulty with the principle of women bishops to remain in the Church of England, while allowing the preferment of women to the episcopate to go forward.

  14. What is making me have to think hard about this issue is that as an incumbent, I have had to discuss this with my PCC, and have had to work through in my mind the reality of the hard feelings of the minority there in the face of the proposal which seems to be driving them out of the Church of England on unduly doctrinaire grounds (which go beyond fairness to any woman who may find herself consecrated as a bishop). This is where the crunch comes. What drives me is not expediency, or abstract principle (although I recognize that that is how the pro- and contra- women bishop parties see it)but pastoral concern. I really want to be able to say that I support a position which is going to remove this remaining obstacle to the preferment of women, without driving those of a contrary view out. Unless both conditions can be met, I cannot but oppose the proposals. Whether any alternative then arrived at frustrates, or is opposed by, the parties concerned (or indeed whether it is likely to by approved by Parliament) is secondary to whether in my own conscience I feel that I have provided for the more reasonable elements on both sides.

  15. Ian, reading through the above what really alarms me is the lack of grasp not only of theological issues but the legal ones – eg in the statement that a parish has a right of veto of any candidate. Not if the right of presentation to the Benefice is suspended, it doesn’t.

    If people haven’t really got the basics, how can they properly vote on the issue?

  16. OK, sorry — I have found the part in Ian’s original piece you are referring to. Can you please be more specific about the point of law and theology you are alluding to? What do you mean about the basics?

    The sadness is that the ‘basics’ for the proponents and the opponents of women bishops mean such different things.I cannot help but echo Oliver Cromwell to the invading Scots: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.’ — I say this to both sides.

  17. John, I agree with you about grasping the basics. But suspension of living can only be done for good reason, and for a limited amount of time. The answer to lack of trust about existing processes is to reform the existing processes, not to skew new ones ‘knowing’ that existing ones will be misused.

    Stephen, I think Simon has expressed all the things I would want to. But note your telling phrase is not ‘Anything less than a statutory existence will be inadequate in law’ but ‘Anything less than a statutory existence will be unacceptable to them.’ There is a strong sense of emotional blackmail in this. And your comment (which I have heard repeated all over) that the Code of Practice is ‘voluntary’ is simply misleading. As Simon says, it is ‘statutory.’ I noted other instances of such misleading use of terminology in our discussions on Monday, and it is really hampering debate.

    Paul, several things. First, I don’t think it helps saying ‘I have seen the names…’ As Simon says, no-one knows the future. And the experience with presbyters is that many lay people who were vehemently opposed to the ordination of woman, having then experienced their ministry, went on to say ‘What was all the fuss about?’ Bishops are largely fearful of splitting dioceses because those opposed have said that is what will happen.

    And I don’t believe that the debate here sets any precedent for some future possible discussion about same-sex relations, because there are so many differences in the debate viz the Church has not for decades agreed that ‘there is no theological objection to the rightness of same-sex relations’, there has been no clear argument set out from Scripture, and it is not the case that half the population of the UK is in a same-sex relation.

  18. Two more things to note. If the Measure is strengthened any more for ‘traditionalists’, there is a good chance Parliament will reject it. And if the whole thing goes on hold for 5 years, when it returns I think the majority will be in no mood to compromise, and I would predict the return to a single clause measure, with no negotiation. I think the traditionalists will have cooked their goose.

  19. I think Viv Faull would make an excellent bishop. I also take the point about the way that delay may make a compromise more difficult. Also the hint from the 2nd Estates Commissioner that Parliament would strike down any compromise. However, none of this would change my mind at all about trying to do the right thing by all concerned.


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