So where are we on Women Bishops?

March 6, 2012 § 6 Comments

March 2012 finds us waiting and wondering. The February Synod is past, the House of Bishops meets in May, and the final votes on all of this take place in July inYork. After the debates last month I think I’m hopeful. But I’m worried too. There is more than one knife edge on which we are balanced. 

I’m hopeful because I think those who are looking for safeguards can find them in the Measure and its Code of Practice. I’m worried because those same people don’t seem to think so, and in February pinned their hopes on something – legislation rather than code and ‘coordinate jurisdiction’ rather than delegation – which I don’t think would do what they think it would. And I’m worried that those who are actively for the Measure are being polarised the other way, and that language about ‘discrimination’ just enflames things. It’s quite possible that a nudge towards the opposers might not be enough for them but too much for the supporters, and elements of both could vote against – the nightmare scenario. 

On balance I’m on the hopeful side. Here’s why. 

We were assured more than once in Synod that the combination of a Measure and a Code is much stronger than an Act. It’s all about language and perception. Just because there is a measure and a code doesn’t mean that they can be changed on a whim, and all Bishops will be bound by them. Just because it’s a Code doesn’t mean it can be disregarded like some ‘codes’ (eg the Press) people know about. The fact that each diocese will have an individual Scheme which enacts the Code and Measure code doesn’t mean that they will be radically different from each other, but rather that these things will be worked out locally and appropriately. A bishop will be a bishop, and it is structure rather than quality which will be different locally – just as it is now. Some dioceses (like my own) have no need of ‘flying’ bishops, some do.

 But those opposed are worried that the seemingly ‘softer’ language of Code, Scheme and Measure meanthat provision for them will not be robust. I don’t think this is so, but it’s hard to prove.

 It was very good to have an illustrative Code of Practice to help the February debates. Before it was released traditionalists could wave a blank piece of paper around and say that they could not trust something they knew nothing about (and one of my friends did just that). The only way they could be safeguarded was by law. Specifically they had to have what the Archbishops proposed in 2010 – ‘coordinate jurisdiction’. How, they said, could an objecting parish guarantee that they would be looked after by a bishop they could trust? How could they receive the ministry of a bishop ‘delegated’ by a diocesan whose orders were in doubt? Hence the desire to have a bishop whose authority came via the Measure, and not directly from the Diocesan Bishop, so their jurisdiction would be coordinate rather than delegated.

 In the debates, and since, traditionalists made it clear that to vote against coordinate jurisdiction was to vote against their place in the C of E. I couldn’t see how this worked, for a number of reasons. Even with CJ the Diocesan Bishop is the Diocesan Bishop, losing none of their powers. If CJ is required because of doubt about the orders of the Diocesan, how could a ‘safe’ bishop’ share his ministry with them, and how could a parish accept that their diocesan was indeed their diocesan? In the debate we were given various examples of CJ – Cyprian in the third century, the Archbishops ofCanterburyandYork. Archbishop Sentamu even said that Diocesans are suffragan bishops of the metropolitan bishop. But every example quoted  depended on mutual recognition of orders – indeed they need such recognition to work. The version of CJ being asked for depended on orders being publicly shown to be in doubt. 

My other concern was that CJ was only about legal delegation. The Code and Measure make clear that a parish making the right kind of request will receive an appropriate Episcopal ministry. The Diocesan Bishop is legally bound to enable this, and will remain the diocesan. I could not see that the Diocesan Bishop could be separated from their legal role in enabling ministry across their diocese. People asking for CJ were asking for the Diocesan to be divested of powers which are only legal, not sacramentally Episcopal. 

In the House of Bishops introduction to the Code of Practice, and in a speech in the debates, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan offered a distinction between the derivation of episcopal authority and the delegation of episcopal powers. A bishop delegated by a ‘doubtful’ diocesan bishop does not have their ministry ‘tainted’ or called into question. What ever the nature of the orders of a ‘doubtful’ bishop they are legally the diocesan, and even CJ accepts this. Therefore they have the legal ability to delegate episcopal ministry. 

Synod, in rejecting a call to ask the House of Bishops for CJ seemed to accept this. If the House were to give us something slightly more developed about this I think it could work. That’s my hope. My worry is that the language is so polarised that the nuances of this are lost behind ‘delegation bad – CJ good’. I don’t think CJ worked theologically anyway, and as such it became a bit of a fig leaf. But for some it’s a secure fig leaf, and the stronger garments of skin with which God replaced the fig leaves don’t look good to some. To accept delegation is not to have to accept sacramental orders, only legal power. But it doesn’t sound like that. 

In his speech the Archbishop of Canterbury also indicated that there was a genuine concern that the Measure and Code were not clear enough about the theological nature of objections to women bishops (and to those bishops who had themselves been ordained by women or who ordained women), and were not clear about what sort of male bishops were able to be offered to traditionalists. I hope that the House of Bishops will be able to make things clearer. It is not just about male and female, and there will be male bishops who are objected to as well as female ones. Some further delineation of the theological matters under question would be good. And if that flushes out some underlying beliefs about ‘sacramental assurance’ and the ‘pedigree’ of ordained ministers then so much the better.

 So: I think February’s debates have moved us on. The House of Bishops gave us some words about delegation and derivation which should preserve the consciences of those who cannot accept the ministry of women as bishops, or of men who ordain or have been ordained by women. Coordinate jurisdiction was, I think, a blind alley, and a Code which makes very clear how a diocesan can be a diocesan and joyfully enable the ministry of a bishop acceptable to certain parishes without compromising that ministry sacramentally will be a welcome step forward. That Code is very nearly in existence.

That’s the hope. The worry is that caricaturing on both sides will continue. And, though the figures have consistently shown a majority way in excess of 2/3 in favour, the composition of the Synod is such that it could be very tight in July. So we’ll need to listen to each other. I just hope we listen to what’s underneath the words, and not set up false oppositions, and fig leaves which blow off in the wind. 

The only body which can propose amendments to the Measure is the House of Bishops. The debates in February were a way of influencing their debate. Synod, reasonably conclusively, asked for more of the same, not a revision in favour of CJ. What the House can do is flesh out sections of the Code and give us a commentary to show how this works theologically. They can also demonstrate how a Measure, Code and Scheme are robust, binding and long-lasting, so that it is not just objectors now but in the future who are guaranteed their ‘honoured place’. If they get this right then we will be able to enact what everyone says we want: to move on, together, and do some mission. Amen to that.

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§ 6 Responses to So where are we on Women Bishops?

  • anon4cec says:

    Future objectors are less likely surely as younger generations are more accepting

  • Sue Wallace says:

    Useful summary. I liked everything apart from the reference to fig leaves and skins. For beautiful living creatures had to die to provide the skins, and I’m praying that no-one suffers in the long run as a result of these difficult decisions.

  • Thanks Sue – perhaps I should have said ‘the more serviceable garments that God provided’ as the point was not about pain and suffering. I’m right with you there.

  • Most revd John R W Neill says:

    The Church of Irteland agreed to women bishops some twelve years ago at the same time as women priests. As the proposer of the legislation, I held out against any escape clauses for those opposed. One priest left the Church of Ireland, but most of those who led the opposition have now come around and indeed some have been consecrated and have ordained women themselves. I know it is a different church but fear and intimidation seem to have increased in England with the idea of two integrities – which is to me theological nonsense in relation to the validity of ministry. No women has yet been consecrated in Ireland, but that is a matter for Electoral Colleges.
    I cannot see that the Church of England is even-handed if it allows escape clauses or even codes of practice for men who do not want to serve under a woman bishop. Similar provision would have to be made for women serving in a diocese where the bishop does not ordain women as priests if the Church is serious about being even-handed.
    +John Neill

  • John Gough says:

    An interesting summary, Jeremy.

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