Jeremy Fletcher's Blog

Women Bishops – Where now?


The simple answer is ‘to the dioceses’. The formal process now requires each diocese to discuss the Measure as agreed by General Synod. When it comes back from the dioceses it is debated again, in each separate house (ie laity, clergy, bishops), and then by the full Synod. The Measure will then have to gain a two-thirds majority in each house before it is sent to Parliament, which will have to approve it all before it becomes law.

So, there is a long way to go.

First reflection: Saturday afternoon’s vote against the Archbishops was not the cataclysmic, church splitting moment it was painted as. Though the pressure was piled on, and however much opponents of Women Bishops tried to make it a vote of confidence in their being accepted in the Church of England, it was no such defining issue. I voted against a formal legal solution and for a solution based on trust and negotiation. When a woman is made a diocesan bishop there will, without a doubt, be a system in place which preserves those who cannot accept it from receiving her ministry. And she should be just as much a diocesan bishop has her male counterparts in the House. Do not believe those reports which said that the vote was against any kind of provision. There will be loads of it, but I hope it will be in such a way as allows a woman to be completely a diocesan as well as preserving the conscience of those who cannot accept her.

Second reflection: the process in the dioceses will be interesting. The noteworthy thing about our two days of debate was that there was a good level of courtesy, the absence of overt bigotry and misogyny, and a reasonable level of debate. There was a bit of theology, though given that we are working 35 years after the debate which said that there is no theological objection to a woman as a bishop, there didn’t need to be that much. There was quite a specialised debate about jurisdiction, office and ordination, and that wasn’t too shabby either. We talked a bit about Church and State as well. And we were reminded that our purpose is mission and the Gospel. Simon Killwick, speaking on behalf of the Catholic Group, was a model of politeness and dignity. He deserves to be congratulated by all sides.

But the level of debate in the Diocesan Synods I have been to is not as good. It would be nice to think that dioceses will be offered a superb briefing which will enable them to set up the debate carefully. But there remains the capacity of a diocesan synod to make a complete horlicks of things.

Third reflection. Everyone standing for Synod in the forthcoming elections will, presumably, have to state where they are on this. And it won’t be enough to say generally that you want women bishops and for those who don’t to have an ‘honoured place’. You will have to define the extent of that honoured place, and whether a woman diocesan should be able to offer that place in her own right or by recourse to a legal procedure.

Fourth reflection. A lot now rides on the Code of Practice which the Bishops are to draw up. Again, I can’t see it providing anything less than opponents of women as bishops will want: the ‘nominated’ Bishops will have to be acceptable, because it is in no one’s interests that they be otherwise. The issue will be the strength of the operation of the Code. The Measure requires each diocese to draw up a scheme: surely this can be made so clear that those who currently feel that their safeguards have been taken away can be made to feel that they can safely remain stay. Though it felt catastrophic to many that Saturday’s vote was lost, there is a long way to go before it can be shown that there is no hope for them. It is not the time to leave.

Fifth reflection. The tone of Monday’s debate was very different to Saturday’s. Lots of people were able to say good things about the ministry of ordained women, and some generosity was shown to opponents. But at two points we went back to Saturday, and the pain expressed by David Houlding and the Bishop of Beverley reminded us that, however generous the ‘winners’ are, the ‘losers’ still feel like ‘losers’. +Beverley loaded a lot onto the statutory provision of financial compensation for those who leave and face hardship, and he got a conclusive answer: not by law. He should not see this as a kick while he is down though: Synod now distrusts a ‘one size fits all’ solution to such things, and prefers such cases to be dealt with at grass roots. Again, just because there is no legal provision does not mean that there will be no provision at all.

Last reflection. I need to talk to a lot of people who feel deeply hurt by the events of the weekend. We need to talk together about mission and ecclesiology and law and grace. If I am to stand for Synod again I need to be able to understand what they are saying. And we have to live in the same diocese too. Though last Saturday was not a cataclysm, the next two years could be a slowly unfolding one. We owe it to each other and the communities we serve not to make it so.