To All Clergy
The procedures of General Synod are difficult enough for its members to understand so it is excusable that media reporting is sometimes wide of the mark. It’s often forgotten that the General Synod is the only body in England which can frame parliamentary legislation and which Parliament itself cannot amend but simply approve or reject. Hence, when it comes to legislation the process is very similar to that within Parliament itself with the addition that the framing of that legislation is also subject to a complex synodical procedure.
I begin this letter in a rather technical way since it may help to explain why the General Synod seems to be having so many ‘final’ votes on the Ordination of Women as Bishops. It’s been reported for several years that the Synod is about to have a decisive vote but we haven’t got there yet and will not be there for about another couple of years.
What the General Synod did this past weekend was to send the draft legislation to be considered in each diocese. Our own Diocesan Synod will consider it sometime next year and I hope every Deanery Synod will have the legislation on its agenda too. Recent meetings of our Diocesan Synod have begun to prepare the ground for this and our Agenda Planning Group will soon recommend a process and timetable for our diocesan consideration. The majority of the dioceses will need to approve this legislation before the General Synod begins the concluding stages and does reach a final vote.
I have described the process before offering any opinion of my own. However, I think you should know how I voted this weekend and the conclusions I have reached.
I believe that the Church of England would be enriched by women in the episcopate. The gifts and graces which women have brought to the ordained ministry seem self evident to me and I am convinced that in the ordained ministry it is our humanity which is more important than our gender, just as it is in relation to our salvation in Christ.
What is also evident to me is that many of those who are opposed to the ordination of women in our Church also believe it is right for the Church of England to ordain women to the episcopate. They see it as an inevitable consequence of a Church which ordains women to the diaconate and the presbyterate. However, they do want appropriate provision for those who do not believe this to be a legitimate development in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.
This is why there has been so much focus on what sort of provision should be made to enable those who are opposed to remain with integrity within the Church of England. I have come across very few people who do not want to make some sort of provision for enabling conscience to accept this development in our tradition. But what should it be?
A Code of Practice which means that a woman bishop would delegate her authority to a male bishop (for pastoral and sacramental care) for parishes which cannot accept her authority does mean that the parish concerned would have to recognise the apostolic authority of the female bishop in order to make this request. That’s what some of the opponents find so difficult. That’s also why our Archbishops proposed an amendment which suggested co-ordinate jurisdiction deriving from the Measure itself. It would not have impaired the jurisdiction of the female bishop but required her (and male bishops too) to work with an episcopal colleague in order to provide pastoral and sacramental care for every parish within any diocese. It was this amendment which was carried by majorities in the House of Bishops and House of Laity but fell by five votes in the House of Clergy.
The Archbishops made it clear that it was not a test of loyalty to them but a way of so re-shaping the Code of Practice to make it something which could work for everyone without any losers. I voted for it and regret that it failed so narrowly to receive the Synod’s approval.
However, the House of Bishops is intending to get on with the work of drawing up the Code of Practice with some urgency. One of the difficulties is that we do not have a Code of Practice to work with yet which is why so many people were in the dark about the Archbishops’ intentions or what the consequences would be of what they had suggested at what seemed like the last minute (though this was inevitable).
I am very glad that the process of considering this legislation continues and I’m also glad that the present General Synod indicated such significant determination to make provision for those who find the proposal that women should be bishops so difficult. Under God I believe we are charged to do what we believe God calls us to do. For St. Paul this meant that the food laws he had cherished as a Jew should be set aside in a new dispensation brought by Jesus Christ. But he did continue to honour them among Christians who still observed such laws. We now live in a world which is likely to treat minorities in a cavalier and callous way. I long to see women as bishops in our Church but I also want the world to see that we honour and include the minority who do not believe this to be God’s will. The secular world may find that hard to understand but it seems to me to reflect both a New Testament principle and an honouring of our humanity redeemed in Christ.
This comes with my prayers for you all.