This reflection is occasioned by the recent decision of the House of Bishops of the Church of England to amend the legislation regarding ordaining women as Bishops that is due to come before the General Synod in July. The changes are here. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued an explanatory statement. The ‘Groupof Six’ officers of the General Synod agreed (but only by a majority) that the Bishop’s amendments were not enough to require the legislation to be returned to the Dioceses, who had passed the legislation overwhelmingly.
There are good blog posts stating that this is an amendment too far, makes no change and is hurtful. Forward in Faith and Reform have issues press releases saying it is not enough. Women and the Church (WATCH) have issued a (helpful) discussion paper. That WATCH have not responded with a clear position is an indication of how difficult the bishops’ intervention makes the situation.
The Bishops, in their wisdom, have made two changes to the draft Measure. The first amendment is to Clause 5, and adds the following:
“( ) the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request under section 3,”.
This moves something which has up to now been in a draft Code of Practice (the final Code will not be written and agreed until the legislation has been passed) onto the face of the legislation. This could be seen as a minor change. But much rises on what is meant by ‘consistent with the theological convictions’. There is a weak interpretation, which states that if the theological convictions of a parish mean that they cannot accept the ministry of a female priest or bishop, then the provision of a male priest or bishop is enough to be ‘consistent’. But there is also a strong interpretation (made, for instance by Forward in Faith) that bishops and priests so provided will “share the theological convictions of those to whom they will minister”. This poses deep ecclesiological issues about a church with a pick-and-mix attitude to authority. On what other issues can I choose to have a bishop who shares my views? This is a strain of problematic ecclesiology that has been endemic in Anglicanism and the Church of England recently. It dates back at least as far as the Act of Synod allowing for so-called ‘flying bishops’ in 1993. But bringing it onto the face of a Measure reinforces it. The Archbishops’ commentary on the amendments states that
it attempts to take seriously the fact that, as has been clear all along, simply providing any male bishop would not do justice to the theological convictions lying behind requests from some parishes
But this just begs the big question ‘Why?’ The theology and ecclesiology of this is far from clear. Adding inclarity at this stage of proceedings seems perverse and rather daft – it is just storing up problems for the future.
The second amendment made by the bishops is to Clause 8, and adds:
“(2) Where a male bishop exercises episcopal ministry in a diocese by way of delegation in accordance with arrangements contained in a scheme made under section 2—(a) the legal authority which he has by virtue of such delegation does not affect, and is distinct from, the authority to exercise the functions of the office of bishop which that bishop has by virtue of his holy orders; and(b) any such delegation shall not be taken as divesting the bishop of the diocese of any of his or her authority or functions.”
The legislation provides for those who cannot accept the ministry of a female bishops by directing her to delegate her authority to a male bishop. This insertion clarifies that his episcopal ministry comes (is derived) from his ordination as a bishop and not from the delegation of the woman bishop. In a similar vein when I as a priest preside at the Eucharist, I do so by virtue of my ordination as a priest. But I do so at the altar of Derby Cathedral by virtue of my license from the Bishop of Derby. My priesthood derives from my ordination, but is exercised in relation to the authority of the diocesan bishop.
So far, so dull. And if you’re still awake then you’re doing well. But the question is, how should these amendments be greeted by the church as we approach the Synod vote in July?
First they should be greeted with a howl of outrage and pain. Once again women and their ministry are treated as the problem, not as the tremendous gift that they are. It is now unimaginable to return to a situation in which the Church of England did not ordain women. Women have exercised costly and life-affirming ministries within the Church. They have served their people, within and without the church, have proclaimed the Gospel and celebrated the presence of God with his people. By far the greater issue is why the settled will of the Church is not accepted by those who belong to it. That certainly should be the exception, that is the problem, not the ministry that is so greatly valued by the Church as a whole.
That the House of Bishops should act in this way is a kick in the teeth, not just to women in ministry, but to the church as a whole. The Dioceses of the Church of England voted by a vast majority to accept the draft Measure as it was (and incidentally, isn't this something we can consider as the reception of women's ministry by the Church of England). If change is so helpful, why didn’t they suggest it to the exhaustive committee that drafted the legislation, or at least move it at the Synod? That they have made another eleventh hour change is hurtful, and flies against the will of the Dioceses of the Church of England and the General Synod. The settled will of the Church is that women should be in priests and bishops orders.
Howling over, I think the addition to Section 8 can actually be welcomed. It makes clear that the ministry of a bishop comes from their ordination, not from who allows them to exercise that ministry. Some would say that this should have been clear already (after all, why bother to ordain a suffragan bishop if their ministry comes from the diocesan?). This calls the bluff of opponents who are wedded to a model of a church-within-a-church, which was how the Act of Synod was operated (but never intended?). Instead of permitting a bishop to work outside the diocesan structure, loosely governed by the Archbishop of the province, this will ensure that bishops work within the same church.
The amendment to section 5 is more worrying. It carries to new levels the dangerous ecclesiological tendencies of recent Anglicanism by enshrining it in law. It makes those tendencies harder to unpick. It stores up new problems that we can only begin to predict, and many that we cannot yet see. That is a worrying situation.
But, in my opinion, neither amendment crosses the red line of making a new class of bishop, the “woman-bishop”. Indeed, the amendment to section 8 seems to undermine the ostrich-like attempts that will be, and indeed are already, made by some opponents to act as if the Church does not ordain women.
Whilst undoubtedly making matters worse, the amendment to section 5 only amplifies what was already in the ecclesiological mess that the Church of England is currently in. Severe hard work will be needed to unpick this mess (may I humbly suggest that we need to attend once more to Article XXVI, but that is a subject for another day). But it would need doing with or without the amendment. And we will be in a far better place to do that with women in the House of Bishops than without them.
So howl with pain and indignation, then hold your nose and vote for the legislation. And then roll up your sleeves and begin the long and painful work of setting out a renewed ecclesiology for the Church of England.