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Church of England inches closer to approving women bishops


The long and arduous road towards accepting women bishops in the Church of England became an inch shorter February 11 as the General Synod passed a motion to send a draft measure on the matter to a revision committee that will spend the next 12 months reworking the legislation.

The draft measure has two principal objectives: “to give the General Synod power to make provision by canon allowing women to be consecrated as bishops; and to set out the legal framework for the arrangements to be made for parishes which, on grounds of theological conviction, feel unable to receive the ministry of women.”

The synod was not asked to amend the draft legislation, only to decide on whether it should be “considered for revision in committee.” With a majority affirming that decision, synod members now have until March 16 to submit proposed amendments for review by the revision committee.

Bishop Nigel McCulloch of the Diocese of Manchester, chair of the drafting group responsible for drawing up the legislation, introduced the motion to synod, saying that “today marks the start of a completely new phase in synod’s consideration of the admission of women to the episcopate.”

The two pieces of legislation now in the hands of the revision committee are a measure titled “Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women)” and a proposed amendment to a canon that deals with “the accommodation that will need to be made … to welcome women wholeheartedly and enthusiastically to each order of ministry and leave generous space for those who in conscience cannot receive this development,” said McCulloch.

The draft measure and amending canon, together with an illustrative draft Code of Practice and an explanatory memorandum, are available here.

The revision committee is expected to report its conclusions and present a revised measure to synod in February 2010, at which point amendments may be debated.

The process involved in allowing women in the episcopate of the Church of England is complicated and ultimately will require endorsement by the British Parliament before any measure can take full effect. It is generally estimated that -- assuming all stages of the legislative process proceed without delay -- women bishops will not be canonically possible until at least 2014. (An article on the differences between the General Synod and the Episcopal Church’s General Convention is available here.)

Christina Rees, a lay member of synod from the Diocese of St. Albans, said that she was grateful for the work of the legislative drafting group, but described the proposals as “a jigsaw put together with a hammer. Some of the pieces don’t quite fit together.”

Chair of the advocacy group Women and the Church, Rees said that the “jigsaw … seems to support implicitly that women are God’s faulty creation … The tragic reality is that our history has said things about women that we would now condemn. My greatest hope is that when we come to final approval all those echoes will have stilled.”

Bishop Martyn Jarrett of Beverley, in Yorkshire, northern England, said that he intended to vote against the motion because he felt that the proposals “fail to achieve the task; the report doesn’t adequately seek to make it possible for those who in good conscience cannot accept” women bishops.

Kevin Carey, a lay synod member from the Diocese of Chichester, praised the work of the drafting group, saying that it “came out with a better product than the … messes that they were sent away with. The group has given us some basis for moving forward.”

Carey reminded synod that “no matter what we think of the proposals … the review process will be detailed and consider” all the suggested amendments, including “those that were made in the past. It would seem like an extreme position not to send the measure to a review committee.”

One part of the draft legislation that has caused some contention is the recommendation that “complementary bishops” be offered to those unable to receive the ministry of women bishops.

McCulloch said that it seems likely that this “will be the subject of keen debate during the revision process and synod will have to make up its mind whether such a provision is necessary or desirable.” The judgment of the drafting group, McCulloch said, was that “without such a provision, a number of those who genuinely wish to remain within the Church of England would feel that they could not do so.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recognized that a large number of synod members “would like to vote for a motion that is manifestly good news for all of us” and acknowledged the need for the revision committee to provide adequate space.

Williams said he is surprised “we have moved so far towards something that might command a common mind” and while he recognized that there is still “unclarity or unfinished business,” he noted that “we are not that far from something we had hoped.”

Sister Anne Williams, a member of the drafting group who disagrees with women’s ordination, acknowledged the many different perspectives within the group. “We listened to one another and came to an understanding and mutual respect for one another,” said Williams, a lay member of synod from the Diocese of Durham. "The process was immensely difficult at times, but it was in Christian love that we strived to find a way that we could hold together.

“If women can be priests we cannot prevent them from being bishops, but I ask that for those of us who are unable to accept that ministry, provisions be made that are sound and certain and give us assurance for the future,” she added. “Looking after every one of our sheep is important.”

Bishop Graham Jones of the Diocese of Norwich called for synod to vote against the measure. “Women should and will be ordained to the episcopate, but what I see is an episcopate so damaged and fractured it is scarcely worthy of the name,” he said. “In this draft measure, nearly all its provisions talk about ways their ministry can be avoided or not recognized. This has serious consequences for episcopal ministry, not just for women bishops. God will show us a better way. We may have to wait.”

Anne Martin, a lay synod member from the Diocese of Guildford, said her greatest fear is for the draft legislation to be rejected and having “to go back to the drawing board. What will people think if we continue to ramble and self-destruct? There will be women bishops; are we just prolonging the agony if we go backwards?”

Bishop John Gladwin of Chelmsford diocese agreed. “It is important that we get on with the task because many of us have waited long enough,” he said.

The Rev. Canon Simon Killwick of the Diocese of Manchester described the process towards women in the episcopate as “flawed,” noting that the Church of England and its synod will be different in five years when the legislation might come into effect. (A new synod will be inaugurated in 2010.)

Responding to the debate, McCulloch said that “at every stage in the discussions” about women in the episcopate “there has been a vote to proceed to the next stage.” He told synod members that all the concerns that had been raised today are matters that can be dealt with by the revision committee. “If we reject this legislation, we are in danger of being seen as a church that has given up.”

The Church of England’s General Synod began its course toward allowing women in the episcopate when in July 2005 it passed a motion to remove the legal obstacles to ordaining women bishops.

In July 2006, synod called for the practical and legislative arrangements of admitting women to the episcopate to be explored. It also called for the formation of a legislative drafting group, “which will aim to include a significant representation of women,” charged with “preparing the draft measure and amending canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles to the consecration of women to the office of bishop.”

The legislative drafting group was asked to prepare a draft of possible additional legal provisions in order to “seek to maintain the highest possible degree of communion with those conscientiously unable to receive the ministry of women bishops.”

At its July 2008 group of sessions, synod agreed that it was the “wish of its majority … for women to be admitted to the episcopate” and affirmed that “special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests.”

The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate.

In the Anglican Communion, formal discussion and debate on women’s ordained ministry began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference first considered the issue.

The first woman priest in the communion was ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. In 1974, there was an “irregular” ordination of 11 women in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which officially authorized women’s priestly ordination two years later.

Four provinces -- the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Australia, and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia -- currently have women serving as bishops. Bishop Barbara Harris, now retired suffragan of Massachusetts, became the Anglican Communion’s first woman bishop after her election in 1988 and ordination in 1989. The Rev. Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera became the first woman Anglican bishop in Latin America when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Church of Cuba in June 2007.

Eleven additional provinces have approved the ordination of women bishops but have yet to appoint or elect one.

The General Synod is the national assembly of the Church of England which came into being in 1970 replacing an earlier body known as the Church Assembly. It continues a tradition of synodical government which, in England, has its origins in the medieval period.

In other business, the synod banned members of the far-right British National Party from working for the Church of England and voted to prohibit clergy from signing up to the political party.

On February 12, synod will discuss the latest draft of the proposed Anglican covenant, a set of principles intended to maintain unity throughout the communion amid differing viewpoints, particularly on human sexuality issues and biblical interpretation.


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