The Church of England Synod in July will take up the unfinished agenda of the consecration of women to the Episcopate.
This is not just an English but also as an international issue. There are already woman bishops in the Anglican Communion. But the position of the Church of England in the Communion still means that the stance it takes defines for many (but not all) provinces what is acceptably Anglican.
The real issue
The issue in England is not whether there will be women bishops, but whether those with principled and theological issues on the matter will continue to have an equal and honoured place in the Church of England.
The November 2011 Synod rejected the legislation then before it. In early 2013 representatives of all interested parties took part in mediated conversations about how best to proceed. The results were summed up in a report to the House of Bishops which highlighted five principles (abbreviated below).
- The CofE will be fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and will hold that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office … deserve due respect and canonical obedience.
- Anyone who ministers within the CofE must then be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;
- …The CofE will acknowledge that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;
- The CofE will remain committed to enabling those within the CofE who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops to flourish within its life and structures.
- Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the CofE will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that … contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole CofE.
Four forms of legislation
On the basis of those principles, the working group identified four possible forms of legislation, ranging from the simplest, relying on adherence to a non-statutory declaration from the House of Bishops, to including on the face of the statute the ways in which those who could not accept this development would be accommodated.
In July the synod will meet first in group discussions to consider the report. Then, on the Monday, they will be given the chance to debate and vote on the House of Bishops’ recommendation accepting the five principles but proposing the simplest possible legislation be chosen.
The Catholic Group in General Synod have given this response to the bishops’ proposal: The selection of … the simplest possible legislation by the House of Bishops …. feels like a step backwards in the process, closing down debate before it has started, and rendering facilitated conversations between Synod members pointless. Option one will not help to achieve a consensus; it will not create legislation capable of achieving the required majorities. It would tear up the current settlement over women priests, and replace it with arrangements which no one would be obliged to follow. The option … relies simply on trust to provide for those who cannot accept the ministry of women bishops and priests. We regulate other areas of church life in great detail by law — measures, canons and regulations — and we see no justification for abandoning that approach in relation to one of the most controversial areas of our church life.
The way forward lies in holding together all of the five propositions, without giving any of them more prominence than the others … the arrangements need to be secure, and not dependent on the discretionary decisions of individual bishops, clergy, PCCs, patrons and parish representatives.
Not doing what should be done
A key issue for the debate is the relation between trust and power. Those with the power in these matters (bishops) are asking the clergy and churches to trust them to provide an ‘honoured’ place to those who cannot receive the ministry of women bishops, without the benefit of a legal structure spelling out what they are required to do. The difficulty of this approach can be seen in areas in which there is no disagreement about what should be done, but some people nevertheless fail to do what they should.
This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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