Once again we have permission from the Editor of The Tablet to reproduce two articles from last week’s issue, dealing with the General Synod’s failure to approve legislation allowing women to become bishops. The first one by Mark Chapman is reproduced below. The second one by Linda Woodhead will follow soon.
Don’t blame the laity
Most observers inside and outside the Church of England have concluded that last week’s failure by the General Synod to vote through legislation allowing women bishops has left it in turmoil. Here, a member of the synod claims that the problem is a lack of trust by the bishops
Seldom do the decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England make much of an impact outside the somewhat closeted world of ecclesiastical enthusiasts. But last week the Church’s governing body voted to reject the legislation to allow women to become bishops – and the media is still reeling. Although there was an overwhelming majority in favour, the necessary two-thirds majority was not achieved in the House of Laity, and the motion fell. I felt a sense of bewilderment and anger, and shared tears with my women colleagues. After all, the Church of England has ordained women as priests for 20 years, and it seemed a logical progression to move to women bishops. Church people have quickly criticised the House of Laity as unrepresentative of opinion, calling for a reform of the electoral system on the grounds that electors frequently know virtually nothing about the candidates.
But I am not sure that the House of Laity was really to blame. What was being voted on was not simply the principle of women bishops, but the safeguards offered to those opposed to women’s ministry. When women were ordained priests, a mechanism was created so that parishes could refuse their ministrations, and could also ask for “extended episcopal oversight” from bishops who did not ordain women. With this precedent, virtually everybody in the Church thought something similar would be needed if women were to be ordained as bishops.
Consequently after the principle of women bishops was accepted, a series of drafting groups took soundings over a number of years to produce proposals that were carefully crafted. The basic idea was that women bishops should have the same legal jurisdiction as all other bishops, but that pastoral care and celebration of the sacraments would be delegated to male bishops for those parishes unwilling to accept episcopal oversight from a woman or even from a man who had ordained a woman. This measure was presented for consideration to the General Synod in July 2010.
What happened then was unprecedented: no doubt with good intentions, the Archbishops of both Canterbury and York – in an act which rode roughshod over the hard work of the drafting committees – introduced an amendment that would have created parallel legal jurisdictions, and which had the support of the majority of bishops. This would have meant that the diocesan bishop would not have been legally responsible for the diocese, which could have resulted in incoherence or even conflict between bishops in matters of clergy discipline. The rejection of this amendment by the synod spelt the end of the credibility of the House of Bishops. The archbishops did not seem to realise that a blatant refusal to listen to the formal mechanisms of synod would be disastrous for efforts at building the sort of trust needed to move the measure through the legislative process.
In the new General Synod, to which I was elected and which met in November 2010, it was clear that there was a poisonous relationship between the House of Bishops and the Houses of Clergy and Laity. In what was supposed to be a straightforward piece of rubber-stamping, the synod rejected a bishop, who was a suffragan to the Archbishop of Canterbury, as chairman of the business committee. The other two houses simply did not trust the impartiality of a member of the House of Bishops being in charge of synod business.
In the subsequent months, the Anglican Communion Covenant, which was supposed to offer a mechanism for conflict resolution among the worldwide Churches, was rejected in the dioceses, despite – or perhaps because of – the support of most of the bishops for the covenant. The dioceses were also asked to vote on the women-bishops’ legislation – and 42 out of 44 voted decisively in favour. The matter returned in February 2012 for discussion – amendments were discussed, and firmly rejected. Instead, synod asked the bishops not to change anything substantial at the final stage of scrutiny. But having failed to learn from July 2010, the bishops introduced a last-minute and ill-drafted amendment which seemed to allow parishes to choose their own bishops on the basis of “theological convictions” which would have gone against one of the cardinal principles of church government since the time of Augustine’s conflicts with the Donatists.
Some bishops – most notably the Bishop of Liverpool – broke ranks and recognised their own folly. Not surprisingly, most of those in favour of women bishops firmly rejected the amendment – and since it couldn’t be changed at this stage, the measure was returned to the bishops for further amendment. It was obvious to most of us that circles cannot be squared, and there has to be a limit to compromise for the sake of coherence. Synod was consequently forced to meet again in November. Finally, it discussed a measure that was substantially unchanged from that first proposed in July 2010.
What was clear in the run-up to the synod and in the debate itself was that the significant minority who did not support women bishops and their sympathisers did not have sufficient trust that those responsible for the provisions – the bishops – would make them work unless they were forced to by law. The bishops had failed to trust the mechanisms of synod. For those who are likely to be suspicious of bishops anyway, and who certainly feel beleaguered by the dominant liberalism of the Church, it meant little that the bishops rallied behind the measure on Tuesday. The damage had already been done in July 2010.
The measure will no doubt return soon – and perhaps next time the bishops will work with synod rather than against it and realise that it is synod that provides the mechanism for listening to the mind of the Church, and not the loud-mouthed lobbyists who can easily bend bishops’ ears. Synods can work, but they have to be trusted. And in an Established Church it is to the House of Laity that the Royal Supremacy – which had previously been exercised by Parliament – has been delegated. Chastened bishops might do well to remember that – and then the Church of England might have the leaders it so richly deserves, men and women.