Women in the Episcopate in the Church of England: A Situation Report

Kevin Carey—Member, General Synod (Chichester 297)

Presentation for Affirming Catholicism, Sussex Branch, St. Nicholas, Brighton, 24.i.09.

A set of prayers is available to accompany this presentation.

1. Introduction

In this short presentation on the situation of women and the Episcopate in the Church of England I am going to outline some of the issues which will come before the General Synod in the immediate future before passing on to a wider consideration of the implications arising, depending on the Synod outcome.

2. Short Term Issues

In the first instance, we need to recognise that in respect of the debate about the Consecration of women to the Episcopate in the Church of England, there is a critical mismatch resulting from the legislative procedures of the General Synod. There has been a substantial majority in all three Houses of the Synod in favour of this reform on every occasion it has been debated since the issue began to be considered afresh (the first debate took place in 1975) at the beginning of this Century. Whether the attempt has been to stall (Rochester Report), to obfuscate (the Guildford Report) or to try to square differing positions in creative tension (Manchester Report) the vote in principle has never wavered; but any measure will require a 2/3 majority in each of the three houses and such a majority is currently not to be counted on in the House of Laity. I have no doubt that the 2/3 plus majorities in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy are beyond reversal but in the House of Laity support for any measure will, on current calculations, be anything between 10 votes short or 10 votes in excess of the 2/3. The opponents of the Measure and its accompanying Code of Practice will get their votes in; so must we. In our own Diocese, of the eight Members of the House of Laity, I believe that only three will vote in favour and five against. Further, it is now likely that the final vote will not take place in this Synod but in one that is newly elected. Given the general point that oppositions are more fanatical and easier to organise than propositions, and given the known financial and organisational capacity of both Catholic and Evangelical objectors in this particular case, the next Synod will almost certainly be less favourable to reform than this, particularly in the House of Laity. It is therefore important that, without damaging the due processes of consultation, we are wary of delaying tactics.

If that hurdle is overcome, then the next issue is the extent to which the rights of women to exercise episcopal authority and the rights of those opposed to such a measure can be reconciled. The foundational positions of each side are as follows:

I should like to make some brief comments on these positions:

I think we should accept, as a matter of generosity on the part of women and those of us acting with them, rather than as a matter of tactics, that the fundamental claim of women - just though it is - will need to be modified to respect the fundamental claim of objectors. I say this not only because I think that the balance of concessions between the two viewpoints in any final Measure and Code of Practice will have very little effect on the way people vote on the Final Measure. The only factor likely to shift the ground substantially is the unequivocal support of the Archbishop of Canterbury whose view will carry weight with waverers and, as I have said, a change of vote by five waverers in favour of the measure might make all the difference. The issue here is whether Archbishop Rowan's perception that the time is right outweighs his proper and customary wish to balance different claims and often to see process as an end in itself rather than as a means to an outcome.

I need to make three points specific to our Diocese of Chichester:

3. Longer Term Implications

3.1 Success

What if the Measure succeeds? First, and by far the most important result will be a massive surge of enthusiasm in the Church, from its core rippling out in 'Fresh Expressions' and touching the consciousness of the whole country. Against this, some of the Catholic tradition will leave the Church of England but I doubt that this will be many: some are threatening to resign as a negotiating tactic, some plan to go to Rome but will find Benedict XVI much less pliable than John-Paul II; some will, sadly, have to make a compromise because of their pension plans and some will simply find that they really do have nowhere else to go. There will be residual hostility and bitterness but the history of the last 15 years shows that what is thought to be principled opposition is often based on prejudice and is overcome by experience. Catholics in particular might also like to ponder an issue writ smaller in our Church than in the Church of Rome; without women clergy, any church will have to choose between reform and access to the Eucharist? Do traditional Catholics honestly think that the ecclesiological bar to women's ordination is more important than the Eucharist?

The most important action we can take if the Measure succeeds is to ensure that those who disagree with us do not - as they have in the last 15 years - hide in ghettos, cutting themselves off from dialogue. It is our duty to leave ourselves open to dialogue but it is the Church's duty to ensure that such dialogue takes place. There is hardly a serving cleric in the Church of England who, when ordained, was not aware that the debate on the issue of women; and any clergyman ordained since 1975 should have known of the possibility of the Consecration of women bishops. One incidental fact is that at the General Synod debate at York in July 2008, the greatest show of resentment and ill feeling came from clergy ordained only the week before! At some point in the medium term we will have to consider a cut-off date after which no person who does not accept the clerical ministry of women can be ordained.

Above all, we must be considerate and pastoral and desist from any triumphalism.

3.2 Failure

What if the Measure fails? I have to say that, on balance, I think the Measure will succeed, particularly if it reaches Synod before its dissolution in July 2010; but the terms of the debate have focused so closely on objectors to the Measure that little consideration has been given to what would happen were it to fail:

We will then have three alternatives: to start again; to turn our attention to more pressing matters; or to leave.

4. Conclusion

Let me finish on a personal note. There is little new to be said on this issue - and I am sure I have said nothing new - but, just as the gay clergy issue is only the 'presenting' issue, so, too, is the ordination and consecration of women. At the root of the debate there are three sets of assumptions: