by Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 30 - Jul 2008

In the debates in General Synod leading up to the ordination of women to the priesthood John Habgood, then Archbishop of York, once said that once the Church of England had decided to ordain women, then everyone in the church would be expected to accept the decision and all priests who were ordained after that would have to work with them.

He also frequently told members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in the York diocese that we must not think about our pain and hurt but argue theologically and from a rational basis.

As soon as the measure was passed in General synod in 1992 there were screams of pain from the men who never thought it would happen. David Hope (Wakefield) was depressed and lots of men came to cry on the archiepiscopal shoulder.

With these expressions of pain in the background the bishops met in Manchester, ostensibly to draw up a code of practice to enable women to be ordained if the diocesan bishop was opposed. In the event the bishops came back with a proposal for three bishops to be appointed to provide an Alternative Episcopal Oversight for those who would not accept women priests. This Act of Synod was moved in General Synod and defended by John Habgood even though as Prebendary Avis pointed out it was 'really, theologically and canonically impossible for a priest to be out of communion with his diocesan bishop and to continue to function in his parish; the bishop is the principal minister of the sacraments in his diocese and it is the ancient teaching of the Church... that the parish priest celebrates the Eucharist on behalf of the bishop.'

Swept by a mood of compassion and reconciliation and assured that the measure was pastoral and not connected with jurisdiction, the Synod passed the Act of Synod by a great majority. The dioceses and deaneries were not consulted. 

The effect of the Act of Synod has been to give women a sense of betrayal, to harden opposition to the ordination of women in some areas, to divide the church and to raise serious issues about the position of diocesan bishops who have ordained women. The style of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors has not developed in the pastoral way the Archbishop of York said it would. In spite of his words to the contrary, the effect of 'flying bishops' rushing around conducting services has been to foster division instead of creating unity.

Those opposed to women priests in the Church of England are a small but wealthy, vociferous and powerful group. In his new book Liberal Theology in a Divided Church Jonathan Clatworthy asks why the bishops always seem to give in to the 'conservatives'. He suggests that 'if they disappoint the conservatives they are threatened with the prospect of a rival administration and the church may well split irrevocably. If they disappoint the liberals there will be no fireworks, just a small reduction of support—most will carry on supporting the church albeit a little more grudgingly. From the point of view of church leaders taking a pragmatic point of view the solution seems obvious: better to retain the conservatives.' He writes about the current situation regarding gay clergy but it has been just as true over women priests. Conservative Forward in Faith members must be placated or they will go. Women priests will hang on but they are expendable and perhaps are temporary anyway!

Jonathan goes on to warn that 'if the spirit of foundationalism is allowed to set the tone for the Anglican Communion it will ensure a succession of splits, precisely because it will have sanctioned a more intolerant response to differences of opinion.'

This is certainly true of the Act of Synod. All over the Communion now if people do not like a decision made by a majority in their Synod they say they want a Bishop of their own who will agree with them and 'episcopi vagantes' are springing up everywhere!

Once the Church of England started to think again about women bishops the theological arguments of the last 50 years were re-opened and argued over all over again.

In the end the General Synod did decide to press on with women bishops with lots of assurances to the opposition that they were still loved and they would be 'protected from women'. Even the archbishops used such language. In the subsequent decision the major emphasis was on this protection and eventually the report of the group chaired by the Bishop of Manchester was published and suggested number of ways forward with varying degrees of protection. Women priests had had enough. A small number of senior women sent a letter to the House of Bishops. In a few days hundreds of women priests had signed their support and now it is well over a thousand. The letter contains the paragraph

We believe that it should be possible for women to be consecrated as bishops, but not at any price. The price of legal 'safeguards' for those opposed is simply too high, diminishing not just the women concerned, but the catholicity, integrity and mission of the episcopate and of the Church as a whole. We cannot countenance any proposal that would, once again, enshrine and formalise discrimination against women in primary legislation. With great regret, we would be prepared to wait longer, rather than see further damage done to the Church of England by passing discriminatory laws. In this, we support the recent principled stand taken by the Archbishop and Bishops of the Church in Wales.'

The letter ends:

We long to see the consecration of women bishops in the Church of England, and believe it is right both in principle and in timing. But because we love the Church, we are not willing to assent to a further fracture in our communion and threat to our unity. If it is to be episcopacy for women qualified by legal arrangements to 'protect' others from our oversight, then our answer, respectfully, is thank you, but no.

We are told that the House of Bishops were stopped in their tracks by this letter. For the first time they began to get it; i.e. they began to get an inkling of what it felt like to be serving the main community of the church but to be treated as if you were some dangerous hostile force on the edge.

The bishops discussed the report and a majority of them decided to take to synod from the House of Bishops the following proposal, which was released in a statement from the archbishops.

A member of the House of Bishops is to move that Synod:

  1. reaffirm its wish for women to be admitted to the episcopate;
  2. affirm its view that special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests;
  3. affirm that these should be contained in a national code of practice to which all concerned would be required to have regard; and
  4. instruct the legislative drafting group, in consultation with the House of Bishops, to complete its work accordingly, including preparing the first draft of a code of practice, so that the Business Committee can include first consideration of the draft legislation in the agenda for the February 2009 group of sessions.

The bishops still cannot put their whole support behind it. The statement also includes the following paragraph

The motion now presented to the Synod is offered as a starting point for discussion. It does not represent a consensus within the House on what the conclusion should be but rather the view of the majority on the best place for Synod to begin examining the options. The House hopes and expects that amendments will be tabled which promote other options identified within the group's report, in order to test the strength of opinion within Synod. Some members of the House are likely to table or speak in support of amendments of this nature.

WATCH (Women and the Church) has considered the matter very carefully and prayerfully and decided that it would support a Code of Practice binding on the whole church but not one enshrined in legalisation and not one dismissive of women. This has been tested out with supporters in Dioceses. Here are some of their comments.

  1. There will always be those for whom this decision will be an extremely painful one, but... the introduction of new dioceses will serve only to perpetuate and exacerbate the problems with which we live day by day. I don't want to push people out of the church but a decision in principle has been made after many years of prayerful thought and debate. Experience seems to suggest that when concessions and 'safeguards' have been built into the legislation they have been used up to and beyond their intent.
  2. I cannot imagine that the architects of the Act of Synod foresaw that the Extended Episcopal Oversight they sought to give was to be used to create the level of parallel structures we now live with where not only are there separate events such as the Chrism mass but also separate provision for children's work training and a general lack of attendance from that constituency at events such as Bishop's study days. The Extended Episcopal Oversight was meant to be that, an extension of the diocesan bishop's oversight in particular areas, not an additional bishop for the disaffected. We have been led down a road, which has made this seem normal and acceptable, because we are catering for the consciences of those who disagree. But in the process we have been faced by a reinterpretation of what seemed to me to be at the heart of the Act of Synod itself, which was an attempt at gracious cooperation.
  3. The Act of Synod itself made it easier for people to say in effect 'We don't like what the church is doing on x - we want a Bishop that agrees with us'. The difficulties we face now with Episcopal 'border raids' find their justification in an Act which allowed the integrity of dioceses to be challenged and broken.

WATCH and many others now wait in a state of suspense and anxiety until the Synod votes. We won the vote in 1992 but in many ways it was a pyrrhic victory for the Church as result of the Act of Synod which followed. Women priests have served the church faithfully but have never been allowed to rejoice and never really been affirmed. This time we say:

If it is to be episcopacy for women qualified by legal arrangements to 'protect' others from our oversight, then our answer, respectfully, is thank you, but no.

Will the GS get it?


Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.