Jeremy Fletcher's Blog

Women Bishops – What I think I think


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)