Women Bishops – The Next Step

November 12, 2011 § 5 Comments

York Diocese voted on the Women Bishops Measure today. Each House was in favour (Bishops 3/2, Clergy 25/14, Laity 42/8). We also voted on a ‘following motion’: to ask General Synod to ask the House of Bishops to amend the Measure ‘in the manner proposed by the Archbishops ofCanterburyandYork.’ We passed this by 62 – 24, with 6 abstentions.

I spoke against the following motion. I had voted against it at General Synod, have discussed it widely, and listened carefully. It was always going to be interesting speaking against it in a Diocesan Synod which values an Archbishop who spoke strongly for it. But the contrary arguments needed to be put. It looks like General Synod will have another look at the following motion in February, and I need to listen some more, so here’s where I think I am.

People who are against the consecration of women as bishops need the assurance that appropriate Episcopal ministry will be guaranteed to them. This ministry must come with ‘sacramental assurance’ (i.e. that the hands laid on the bishop in question at their ordinations as priest and bishop were themselves in the historic tradition, and that said bishop has not done anything to compromise this). The wording in the Measure simply speaks about a ‘male’ bishop, and it’s obviously not about gender alone. However, no scheme is going to offer an unacceptable bishop, and I don’t think this argument alone is enough to demand a change in the Measure.

Opponents also dislike the use of the words ‘Letter of Request’ when asking for such Episcopal provision. But there are letters and letters, and these ones have the force of law. So no need for change there either.

Opponents also worry about the Code of Practice, which famously, at the moment, is a blank sheet of paper. Well, you can’t write the Code until the measure is finalised. And they worry that the Code has less weight than the law. Not so, says the Vicar General of the Province of York. A bishop ‘must have regard’ to the Code. If not, the law intervenes. So no need for a change there either.

I’m convinced that the measure allows for the provision, under a Diocesan scheme, of suitable Episcopal ministry to parishes which cannot accept the ministry of a woman bishop. The problem, for opponents, is the way in which that ministry is authorised – the problem of jurisdiction.

The Measure envisages that a parish asks for a suitable male bishop, and the Diocesan bishop delegates such a person to act as their bishop.  That is not good enough for those opponents who do not believe that a woman is a bishop at all. How can someone who is not a bishop delegate a ministry they do not hold in the first place?

Hence the ‘Archbishops’ Amendment’, which proposed a ‘coordinate jurisdiction’, where the legal authority for the suitable bishop would be conveyed by the Measure (or ‘the whole of the Church of England’, as was said in our debate today), not delegated by the Diocesan bishop. In my words, the authority and jurisdiction of the Diocesan bishop would be “by-passed”, and they would have no choice in the matter. Some people believe that this will make a woman diocesan a ‘second class bishop’.

Various examples of ‘coordinate jurisdiction’ have been offered: prison chaplains and military chaplains have their own bishops but also operate in dioceses. Some university chaplains do not relate to the Diocesan bishop, but have a different ‘ordinary’. I don’t think these work as models for parishes in a diocese. And, crucially, they still depend on a recognition that the Diocesan bishop is a bishop.

The heart of it for me is this. The Archbishops’ Amendment is needed, we are told, because some people cannot accept an episcopal ministry delegated by someone they don’t regard as a bishop. So how on earth can a ‘safe’ bishop, authorised by the Measure, ‘coordinate’ with a Diocesan bishop who they don’t think is one? How can coordinate jurisdiction survive a basic rejection of the orders of one of the parties (thanks to Bishop Alan Wilson for this).

The Archbishop of York made clear in our debate that, even with the Amendment passed in some form (and he’s open to it being tweaked), the Diocesan bishop, under the Measure, would not be divested of any of their functions’. So the Diocesan would still be the Diocesan bishop of a ‘requesting’ parish.

What I’m keen to know is if this is theologically satisfactory for those who believe that a woman bishop isn’t a bishop. Is it enough for a parish to have a suitable male bishop provided for them by the Measure while the female Diocesan bishop remains legally their bishop?

If the woman is still the Diocesan, with all of her functions intact, isn’t one of those functions the delegation of her ministry? Is it not possible for opponents to regard a woman Diocesan as validly consecrated, at least provisionally, and to accept her delegation of suitable male episcopacy with joy and grace? If it is not possible, how on earth is a ‘requesting’  parish still part of her diocese?

I am genuinely keen to find out how this works theologically and ecclesiologically. If theologically satisfying coordinated jurisdiction keeps us together then I may have to vote for it. But, at the moment, I can’t see that it makes sense.

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§ 5 Responses to Women Bishops – The Next Step

  • Ian Paul says:

    Thanks for this, Jeremy. It helpfully unearths the logic behind both positions, and I think rightly points out that there is not much difference.

    In our discussions in this diocese, we also heard the complaint that the letter of request ‘was only a letter’, until it was pointed out that the diocesan would be obliged by law to take note of it.

    I sincerely hope that the legislation as proposed goes through.

  • Maggie Swinson says:

    Liverpool also debated a following motion, not the one before you in York, but one which asked for authority (ie ordinary jurisdiction) to be conferred by Measure rather than delegated by the diocesan bishop. It was lost. Bishop James made the speech he was not called to make in the GS debate on the Archbishops’ Amendment in which he said, very powerfully, that authority is conferred at ordination.

  • I would very much like to be a fly on the wall of the House of Bishops when they debate this then. The Archbishop of York is keen on the idea, though I’ve not heard him at great length on it. He was keen to say yesterday that the amendment would not divest the diocesan of their functions, and I need to hear more about what this means for those who believe that a woman diocesan would not have those functions in reality.

  • toby forward says:

    Dancing on the head of a pin.
    There are only two honest positions here.

    a). If the church ordains women as bishops it commits heresy. So, you can either leave and form a righteous rump, or be received into a church which does not fall into this sin.

    b). If you believe that God is calling women to the episcopate and calling the church to ordain them to this office, then it simply isn’t possible to have clergy who refuse to accept the legitimate authority of these bishops. No alternative provision can be offered without damage to the women bishops themselves and to the church. Clergy must submit or leave.

    We have already seen what alternative provision leads to – nonsense like ‘The See of Ebbsfleet’. The General Synod should either reject the idea of women as bishops, or embrace it for everyone. It’s time to end the sad division where one member of the Church of England will not stand at the same altar as another.

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