CofE proposes compromise on women bishops

The Synod of the Church of England clearly voted to move forward with the ordination of women to the episcopate using a so-called “Code of Practice” to care for the clergy and congregations opposed to women in orders and specifically turning aside parallel oversight schemes. The draft legislation to enable women to become bishops includes “complementary” male bishops and the possibility of “judicial review” for parishes unhappy that they might not be able to avoid the presence of a woman bishop.

The Legislative Drafting Group released it’s report this week saying:

“We have published our further report at the earliest opportunity to give everyone the chance to study it before debate. We finished our discussions only just before Christmas,” said the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester.

“The General Synod mandated us to draft a Measure including special arrangements, within existing structures, for those unable to receive the ministry of women bishops and to do that in a national code of practice. We believe we have achieved that by providing for male complementary bishops, as we suggested in our earlier report, and now hand our work to the Synod to discuss the drafts in detail.”

According to the Independent, the Drafting Group is proposing a mechanism by which parishes or clergy could “opt-out,” as the paper calls it, from the ministry of a woman bishop.

Under the church’s proposals, parishes could bypass women bishops and women priests by taking their leadership from specially consecrated male “complementary” bishops.

Parents could elect to have their children confirmed and baptised by male clergy while congregations could seek to have sacraments and other divine service removed from the responsibility of a female bishop.

The ungainly get-out clause, drawn up in response to the Synod’s historic vote in July in favour of consecrating women bishops, is set to provoke dee-per divisions within the church


Riazutt Butt of the The Guardian says:

It is one of several steps designed to heal a rift over the ordination of women as bishops, a row that peaked last July during an emotional, sometimes angry, meeting of the General Synod, the Church of England’s national assembly, while also removing the legal obstacles currently barring women from holding the office.

It is unlikely, however, that this offer of alternative pastoral care will satisfy those traditionalists who have, in their thousands, been threatening to leave the church since Synod voted in favour of pressing ahead with women bishops, with minimal concessions.

While the draft legislation endorses the authority of the diocesan bishop, who retains the right to delegate certain functions to another bishop, it prevents episcopal power from automatically being transferred to another bishop. Under the new law diocesan bishops could, ultimately, refuse to delegate their authority and a parish would have to seek a judicial review to overturn the decision….

The documents acknowledge that some of its arrangements will restrict the rights of women bishops and cites the Church of England’s continuing exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 that where there are conflicting rights, the “exercise of one right may sometimes need to be restricted in order to protect the exercise of another right”.

Martin Beckford of the Telegraph reports that the proposed “complementary” bishops will be limited in their power:

Complementary bishops must be male and must agree not to take part in ceremonies to make women priests or bishops. Parishes or individuals can “petition” to have a complementary bishop provide services and pastoral care for them if either they cannot accept women priests or bishops under any circumstances, or if they just do not want female clergy in their local churches.

The arrangements are described in a new Code of Practice drawn up by a Church committee, in order to prevent a mass exodus of Anglo-Catholic and conservative evangelical clergy and worshippers who believe that scripture and tradition hold that bishops must be male.

Ruth Gledhill says that

The Church faces a potentially disastrous series of court battles. Because the code of practice will not be legally binding, a militantly liberal diocesan bishop could refuse to delegate his or her authority to a traditionalist as petitioned by an Anglo-Catholic parish. The parish will then be entitled to seek a judicial review, leading to costly legislation and damaging publicity.

WATCH, Women and the Church, responded with this statement:

In 2005 General Synod passed a motion asking that the legal obstacles to having women as bishops be removed, and this report contains draft legislation making it possible for that to happen at last.

WATCH is pleased that provision in the draft legislation endorses the authority of diocesan bishops, and that they retain the authority to delegate certain functions to another bishop if requested to do so. This means that episcopal authority resides in and is retained by the diocesan bishop and is not transferred automatically to another bishop. WATCH is opposed, however, to the provision of male-only suffragan sees from which ‘complementary’ bishops may be appointed.

The report acknowledges that some of its arrangements would restrict the rights of bishops who are women, and cites the Church of England’s continuing exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the principle in English law that where there are conflicting rights, the “exercise of one right may sometimes need to be restricted in order to protect the exercise of another right”. (GS1707 page 3, paragraph 16)

WATCH is dismayed that the rights of bishops who are women should be proscribed and that there is not equality of opportunity for women at this level in the Church. WATCH believes that the 20 years’ experience of women as bishops elsewhere in the Anglican Communion shows that mutually acceptable arrangements work well on an informal basis. Chair of WATCH, Christina Rees said today, “This report needs to be seen in the context of a General Synod which has for the past few years stated its desire to open the episcopate to women, and in the wider context of a Church which wonders why this is taking so long. WATCH will be making submissions to the Revision Committee about the contents of the Code of Practice, some of which we find unacceptable, but for now, we take heart that at last we have the draft measure which makes it possible for women to be bishops.”

Of course, the compromise won’t necessarily please those who are opposed to the ordained ministry of women in any form, particularly as bishops.

Butts writes in her Guardian article:

Rod Thomas, of the conservative evangelical group Reform, criticised the lack of clarity in the documents. He said: “Unless bishops, in the future, are always going to respond to requests from petitioning parishes we’re in danger of coming up with a set of proposals that will lead to these issues being tackled in the high court. The church is creating scope for a highly injurious number of court cases.”

He added: “There is also the theological concern that although a woman is made a bishop, she is made one in a way that is contrary to the teachings in the Bible.”

Thinking Anglicans has complete coverage here and here.

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