Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Equality and exemptions

Below is my speech from General Synod this morning.  It relates to Clause 2 of the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination ofWomen) Measure (GS1925A).

At the end of my speech I withdrew my amendment, as it would have created legal problems that were probably insuperable.

It is reproduced below for the record and for the sake of transparency.

Thank you chair.

First of all may I say that I am wholeheartedly in support of the ordination of people of all genders to the episcopate.

However, I am troubled by the second clause of the draft Measure before us that offers a blanket removal of bishops from the terms of the Equalities Act 2010.  There is some irony in the fact that in order to bring greater equality to the Church of England, we need to find an exemption from the Equalities Act.  That irony should at least give us pause.

However, I am troubled by clause 2.  It troubles me that this is not the best way to proceed.  It also troubles me that there is a cost to this exemption.  I am grateful to the Legal Officers of the Synod for their help in putting together even such a crass instrument as the amendment that stands in my name.  I regret that the manner of our proceeding this morning does not allow a more nuanced approach than an amendment can provide.

Synod, the Equalities Act offers protection to a wide range of people on the basis not just of their gender, but also on the basis of disability, age and other factors.  Clause 2 of the draft measure makes it clear that we do need to be able to discriminate in order to make appropriate provision in the terms of the House of Bishops' Declaration that we have heard about this morning.  However, I remain troubled that the exclusion of bishops from the provisions of the Equalities Act about disability and age and so on.  It troubles me that there may be unintended consequences of this exclusion.

This clause is a blunt instrument.  If we need to discriminate, and it is clear that we do, then we need to be more precise about the nature of our discrimination than a blanket exclusion allows.  If I may be permitted a metaphor, what we need is key-hole surgery under a local anaesthetic.  What the clause offers is a general anaesthetic, after which we will awaken to discover that we have lost a limb.

The breadth of the exclusion provided by the clause should trouble us.

But equally troubling is the nature of the exclusion as a retreat from the public square and our mission in it.  Mission in the public square carries public accountability, and any retreat from this (however trivial it may seem) is a retreat from our public mission.  We should want our bishops to be accountable under equalities legislation.  The retreat from public mission embodied in the clause should also trouble us.

Finally Synod, I am advised that the amendment standing in my name would threaten the passage of the Measure to Parliament.  In no way do I wish the Measure to fail.  While I remained troubled by the breadth of Clause 2 and by our retreat from our public mission, and regret that there is no opportunity to deal with these troubles in a more nuanced way, I ask the chair for permission to withdraw the amendment.

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