Women Bishops – What I think I think

June 16, 2012 § 9 Comments

There’s a convention in cricket reporting that goes something like this. At the end of a day where there was great progress by the batsmen followed by a clatter of wickets at the end, the summariser will say: ‘if you’d told the captain at the start of play that England would be 300 – 6 he’d have probably accepted it quite happily’.

If you’d told supporters of women bishops in 2009 (when this measure started its progress) that in July 2012 we’d be looking at the current legislation, would they have been happy with it? There is no ‘coordinate jurisdiction’, no ‘society model’, no spelling out of matters of lineage or sacramental assurance. There is a requirement for all parishes to acknowledge that the diocesan bishop has the legal authority to delegate that ministry to another bishop, and a requirement that a parish wanting alternative ministry should receive that only according to their expressed theological convictions about the ordination of women.

None of what is in the legislation before General Synod in July changes the situation on the ground with regard to the provision of ministry to and within parishes which object to the ordination of women. We have lived with this division since the Act of Synod in the 1990s made provision for parishes to ask for another bishop. But the amendment made by the House of Bishops clarifying that a ‘requesting’ parish should be offered a bishop in line with the ‘theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women’ expressed by the parish has lit the blue touch paper, and I’ve been taken by surprise by this.

It seemed to me that what we have been arguing about since 2009 is not whether there should be alternative provision, but only about what that provision should look like. The considered statement by Women and the Church makes great play of the enshrining in law of a division of theological opinion about men and women in ministry. While that might be regrettable (and I think it is), it’s not new, and something like that was always going to be there if we were to accept that opponents of women’s ministry are also ‘loyal Anglicans’. Very early in the debate one speaker said that of course a diocesan bishop would provide a bishop acceptable to objectors. In specifying that the only valid reason would be about the ordination of women the House of Bishops has not invented something new, but has restricted the grounds of the objection to one which already pertains.

These parishes were always going to be worried about ‘sacramental assurance’, and I think that, as these things play out, their objections will be increasingly difficult to sustain. But in not going any further than this the House of Bishops has refrained from enshrining all sorts of other stuff which the objectors were clamouring for. If three clergy had voted the other way in 2010 we’d have had ‘coordinate jurisdiction’, which is theological nonsense. I’m glad I voted against it.

So, if you’d offered this in 2009 would a supporter of women bishops have settled for it? I am a supporter, and I was there in 2009, and I will settle for it. It is not perfect, but once we agreed to continue with a twin-track ministry then nothing was going to be. It is a great pity that the restriction of an objection to theological convictions about women’s ministry alone has opened the whole thing to scrutiny again, and I’m devastated that people I respect and trust, such as Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Michael Sadgrove and Elaine Storkey have found this a step too far, but I can’t honestly see how it could have been different. That Forward in Faith don’t think the legislation goes far enough is reasonably telling, I think.

What will happen in July? Women and the Church clearly think that supporters of women’s ministry might vote against a measure which would enable women Bishops by 2014, because it enshrines doubts about the ministry of women, and men who ordain women. If supporters were to effectively vote this down then it could be up to 2020 before we get them again. If this measure isn’t enough for WATCH then I don’t think any measure would get through, given the numbers who are opposed in principle and who will remain as Anglicans.

I have consistently supported women’s ordination. I have three female priest colleagues. I voted against coordinate jurisdiction, and took on the Archbishop of York in our Diocesan Synod about it. I couldn’t be more in favour. But people I trust think differently on this legislation – and I’m keen to understand why.

I think what’s proposed treats male and female bishops equally. It recognises that some bishops are acceptable to parishes and some aren’t on this issue. (Just ask the diocesans who have ‘resolution C’ parishes in their dioceses now. It would be bad for all concerned if I became a bishop, but I would ordain women and I would be objected against too.) It preserves the legal status of the diocesan as the diocesan. And it asks the diocesan to treat objections clearly and within defined parameters. That some people object to women’s ordination is deeply regrettable to me. But I think this way of dealing with it is the best we are going to get, for now. So I would be even more devastated if it went down in July.

(PS: Apologies for not posting links – I’m abroad, and they would seem to be routed via odd servers. WATCH is an easy site to access. Google Michael Sadgrove and Miranda Threlfall-Homes ‘blog’ and you should get there. The Fulcrum site has Elaine Storkey’s piece)

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§ 9 Responses to Women Bishops – What I think I think

  • Justin Brett says:

    I’m with you completely on this one – saved me having to write a blog post myself… I have not yet found a sufficiently convincing argument to persuade me that these amendments make any real difference to the legislation that was passed by almost all the dioceses over the last few months.

    • Rachel says:

      Jeremy states that the amendment “recognises that some bishops are acceptable to parishes and some aren’t on this issue” and that it asks the diocesan “to treat objections clearly and within defined parameters”.

      I wholeheartedly agree that this is what the HoB intended but sadly this is not what is actually said in amendment 5 (c) (1)

      I, like Jeremy, fully accept that ‘any male bishop will not do’. The hope and intention is that this would be acknowledged and reflected in the way that diocesan schemes are drawn up – with generosity, grace and pragmatism. It would be sufficient for a diocesan scheme to have due regard to the key issues of headship and sacramental assurance (via the different bishops written into the diocesan plan) without having to spell it all out or reach agreement on those issues.

      Clause 3 of the existing legislation says that a theological conviction is the basis on which a letter of request can be written. The detail of that theological conviction is clearly not of primary importance. To put it more simply, the holding of the theological conviction is the ‘permission’ to issue a Letter of Request. No judgment has to be made on the acceptability of the theological conviction and a diocesan bishop will know his/her churches and will be able to delegate to the appropriate bishop within the diocesan plan.

      What the HoB amendment [5 (1) (c)] has seemingly done is to now make the detail (“the grounds”) of the theological conviction highly significant such that there is a need for the male bishop to exercise their ministry in such a way that is deemed consistent with the theological conviction of the PCC.

      There is now an implicit assumption written into the legislation (even if it refers to the drawing up of a Code of Practice) that all theological convictions which result in an objection to the consecration of women, are acceptable and acceptable for all time.

      This is very different from asking “the diocesan to treat objections clearly and within defined parameters”.

      Wording is everything – It will be there in perpetuity and can lead to consequences which no one ever intended.

      Sadly, this is not what the dioceses voted on.

  • John Smith says:

    The problem with the legislation is that it requires Catholics and Evangelicals to accept the basic assumption that the woman delegating this authority is indeed a bishop – which we do not believe is ontologically possible. It is exactly the same as if a lay male was put in charge of a diocese and started ordaining and confirming – a veritable nonsense.

    • John
      It doesn’t – that’s the whole point. The Archbishop of Canterbury made it very clear that the legal authority to delegate does not depend on the person’s ordained status. It is not ‘exactly the same’ as the example you give – the diocesan does some things because they legally hold the office (which no one will doubt), but confirms and ordains because of their ordination – which some will doubt and will therefore be given to others to do.

      • John Smith says:

        That is muddled legalism. The ‘legal’ authority of a bishop cannot be separated from his ordained status. He has that legal authority BECAUSE he is a bishop- it is the basis for everything. To try and separate legal and spiritual authority in this role simply doesn’t work. If that argument was taken to it’s logical conclusion there would be no problem having a lay diocesan Superintendent of some sort, with a team of bishops under him doing ‘the religious bit’. We are a part of the universal church, not a bowling club. Everyone’s role in the Church has a spiritual consequence for everyone else in it. We do not believe that women bishops would be just bad for us, but bad for you and them as well, because it poisons the whole body.

  • John, if we accept that we are “part of a universal church”, then surely we are already “poisoned” because that Church already has women bishops, both now and in the past.

    The first apostles commissioned by the Risen Christ were women and it was the men who did not believe them. Was the Early Church poisoned because Jesus deliberately selected women to bear the most important message in history?

    Ordination is an invention of the church. Thus it is up to the church to decide whether it wishes to continue with the historical practices of one part of the universal Church. We need to recognise that the universal Church has never had a single model of leadership. It has always been locally decided and multiple systems have co-existed throughout history.
    If you wish to argue that the subset of the Church with which you agree has only ever had male leadership, then that is a different matter.

    I accept that there are spiritual consequences for us all in this, which is why it is so disappointing to see such bitter enmity between people who were commanded to love one another.

  • Fr. Graeme Buttery SSC says:

    Jeremy,
    when we debated this at Middlesborough deanery synod, you said to me that such bishops have to be acceptable to those for whom they are provided! This slightly amended legislation says that, nothing more. Many, it seems, do not agree however.

  • Comments like “because it poisons the whole body” are starting to make this liberal Christian increasingly illiberal…

    It is clear that the vast majority of Anglicans in this country support the ordination of women to the episcopate. The broad support was shown in the overwhelming number of dioceses who voted for the draft legislation (42-2). That draft legislation did contain compromises for those who could not accept the ministry of female priests and bishops. That isn’t to say it was acceptable to FiF or conservative evangelicals. But the compromise contained in the legislation was also unacceptable to those of us who would have liked to see a single order measure with no compromise.

    What really gets me about what is happening at the moment is that the House of Bishops were fully aware of the broad support the draft legislation had in the dioceses, and yet they still felt the need to change it! Those changes were made in the full knowledge that similar proposals had been voted down by General Synod and the Diocesan Synods (in the follow on motions). I’m not really sure what outcome the House of Bishops was really expecting to be honest, particularly as the Measure looks less likely to be passed now. That being the case, these amendments look more and more like wrecking amendments.

    However, if I were a member of General Synod then I would still vote *for* the Measure even as amended. If the Measure goes down, then another 8 or so years is just an unacceptably long time for it to be voted on again. There does remain the possibility of rejecting the amendments and sending the Measure back to the House of Bishops, but what would they then do?! Will any of them in the interim period have changed their opinion on these amendments? If yes, then perhaps they didn’t think about the likely consequences of the amendments in the first place.

    Surely the next stop has to be an amendment of Canon Law to remove (or severely restrict) the ability of the House of Bishops to radically alter Measures like this before a final vote. The decision (from the Group of Six) on whether the amendments alter the Measure as a whole, for example, should not include any members of the group which had proposed, and likely championed, the amendments in the first place!

  • Jeremy,

    ‘We have lived with this division since the Act of Synod in the 1990’s’ Yes we have, and it is precisely this less than wonderful experience that has taught people to beware House of Bishops bearing gifts of last minute changes to legislation. Synod can choose to pass or reject the newly amended measure amendments but it cannot scrutinise, debate or change the amendments. The WB legislation was never a forgone conclusion given the make – up of General Synod, even with the outstanding support of 42/44 diocese supporting the original legislation.

    So while I appreciate that it might have been born of a strong desire to see women in the House of Bishops and that far more worrying amendments were apparently rejected, I think it amending was a counterproductive move. I suspect the amendments are born of political expediency and a desire to garner in a few last minute votes.

    Unfortunately, the amendment to clause 5 will also lose votes – especially the votes of those who have actually enthusiastically supported and worked for WB. The Bishops were made well aware that this would be the likely consequence from briefings they received and they chose to ignore that information.

    To claim that moving provision from a code of practice to a measure makes no difference seems a little naive – if it is to win support from those opposed to WB then it is designed to make a significant difference. Either that or one group will be told it makes no difference, while the other is led to believe it will.

    If I had been told that this is what the legislation would look like back in 2009, would I have been happy? Is this a trick question? I was priested in 2009 and even then expressed grave reservations about the direction the C of E were heading to senior staff. If this had been on the table then, as a woman, I would have chosen not to be priested in the Church of England.

    The legislation is demeaning of women’s humanity, enshrines theological incoherence in law, skews our ecclesiology, is a logistical nightmare and still apparently does not give those who reject women’s ordained and episcopal ministry what they want. It can be argued this was always the case, but now it is undoubtedly more so. Up to this point I have supported the legislation, despite thinking a single clause measure would be more appropriate, including voting for it at Diocesan Synod. I would not have voted for this. I will not get to vote on the amended legislation, so my opinions are of no practical significance, but for what its worth, I would not do so and I hope and pray it gets thrown out.

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