Friday, 14 September 2012

Concerning the Consecration of Women as Bishops

So the House of Bishops has come out with its revised version of the now infamous Clause 5(1)c. I feel I have to comment - after all, what else is a blog for? And this has to be the biggest thing happening at the moment in the Church of England, of which I am part.

What's interesting to me is that there hasn't been the huge rush to comment that there was when the Bishops introduced the original Clause 5(1)c. At the time of writing WATCH (Women And The CHurch - a campaigning group) didn't have anything o their website, and Google reveals only a few blogs with comments: Nick Baines (the "blogging bishop"), Ancient Briton, Peter Ould, and of course the ever-interesting website Thinking Anglicans. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, always worth reading, is so far silent.

Perhaps this silence is just people taking time to think about it all, which would be good (so why am I not doing that, eh?); perhaps it indicates that on the whole people are going to be happy to move forward with the new wording; perhaps indicates that people just don't know what it means.

Well, here are my thoughts on the new Clause 5(1)c, which states that the Code of Practice accompanying the Measure must provide for:

“the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which parochial church councils issue Letters of Request under section 3”

This is instead of:

"the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration and ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request under section 3,"

But  what does this mean? it's not entirely clear - and therein lies the difficulty. If this is deliberately vague as part of a tactic to get the vote passed in November, and open the way to having women as bishops, does it store up problems for the future? I fear it does.

Although "respect" looks like a nice fuzzy alternative to "consistent with," suggesting compromise and openness (not bad things, of course), the Law does not generally like fuzziness (that way lawyers' fees lie), and I'm not sure that it actually means anything different. How does one respect a reason given without actually accepting it and acting on it? Can I respect the grounds on which you've asked for something, but still say "no"? Just possibly; but can my selection of a male bishop respect your grounds for requesting one without giving you what you want? I can't see how it can.

Which makes the other vagueness even more problematic: the replacement of "theological conviction as to the consecration and ordination of women" (which WATCH hated) with "grounds". For "grounds" does not specify that the letter of request should have to do with theological convictions - it might open the door to simple prejudice. I don't think any parish would ask for a male bishop on grounds of prejudice, but who knows?

More importantly, it looks as if the door is wide open for a parish to request a bishop who agrees with their position on women's ordination, male headship, homosexuality or a range of other things. The previous Clause 5(1)c meant only that the bishop or priest's "exercise of ministry" had to be consistent, i.e. that he had to be a genuine bishop/priest as the parish understood it (not ordained by a woman). It didn't mean that they had to agree with the parish's views on anything. After all, when a bishop does a confirmation, if he lays hands and says the words provided by Common Worship, we've no idea whether he believes in male headship or not - but his ministry has been duly and properly exercised.

But if a parish ask for a male bishop because only a male bishop will hold a strong view of male headship, and they want a bishop who holds such views, then the diocesan responding to the Letter of Request must "respect" this and provide just such a bishop, views and all. Or so it seems. And a parish might make a Request on the grounds that only male bishops will have the "right" views on homosexuality, but since the grounds for the Request include views in homosexuality, that would need to be respected.

Now I don't for a moment think that this is what the House of Bishops intended. It will be interesting to get the fuller account of their discussions, and the legal advice about what the new clause means that goes with it. What is put into the new illustrative draft Code of Practice will be highly significant, and it may be here that the next battles are fought. But if my reading is a valid one, where does it leave us for the vote in November?

Well, I would have thought that it does leave the way open for opponents of women's consecration to vote in favour or abstain, because it does seem to give the safeguards they want in the Measure itself, rather than in the Code of Practice (which can be amended relatively easily in the future to get rid of them). But for those in favour of having women as bishops, but not at any cost, this would seem to be a problem. They objected vociferously to the previous Clause 5(1)c; I think they ought to like the current one even less.

Everyone recognizes that a failure to pass the measure in November will be extremely damaging to the Church of England, at least in the short run (in terms of the blame-game and internecine strife). What the longer term implications would be is anyone's guess.

Time for us all to pray even harder for the Holy Spirit to get very, very busy.


  1. I think I have the honour of being the first to comment on your blog. I think the term "respecting the grounds" does, if anything, give more power to the pro-women groups. It is quite possible to say "well, while I respect the grounds of your request, the bishop provided has been ordained by a woman" - or whatever. It offers more flexibility. I hope though that all concerned will manage to work together with grace and as much genuine respect as they can without pandering to unreasonable demands or behaviour. We will wait and see!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and reply!

      It is possible to have mutual respect between people of differing views (seen in their good manners towards each other, and attentive listening). But I don't see how an action (choosing a bishop in this case) can respect a viewpoint without being in accord with that view. See James 2.17-18,26, changing "faith" for "respect/love" etc. (i.e. "respect without works is dead"). If our respect doesn't change our actions, what meaning does it have?

      I agree we should hope that everyone will work with grace to avoid pandering to unreasonable demands or behaviour, but who will decide what is unreasonable? As I said, I fear vagueness could end up helping the lawyers and no one else.

  2. I have commented now, Bernard! And yes, the long silence was due to taking time to think it through very thoroughly (as well as being primarily taken up with my new parish).

  3. Bernard - I think many of your very valid concerns, which are similar to ones I have had, will be addressed by the Code of Practice. Th indications I've seen are that the Code will specifically exclude views other than those relating narrowly to women's ordination being taken into account - which is on the one hand pretty insulting (women are so uniquely problematic....), but on the other is better than the alternative.
    Respecting a view of headship would not mean giving a parish a man who believes in headship - it would mean giving them a man to be their head. That is the key difference between this draft and the previous one, in my mind.

    1. Miranda,

      a lot rides on the Code.

      I don't think it's a s simple as saying "a man to be head will do." That respects the views, but might not respect the reasons given for the request.

      What if a letter of request says "We would like a male bishop, because, as regards the nature of episcopal ministry, we believe in male headship and therefore need a bishop whose pastoral care of us will include authentic teaching of male headship."?

      How does one act in a way which respect the grounds given for the request and not give the bishop who believes in male headship? Can it be meaningful to "respect the grounds" but not enough to change one's behaviour?

      The current draft Code of Practice certainly doesn't exclude a request on the grounds I've imagined above. Will the new draft be more specific, so that letters of request read "On grounds a, b, e, f set out in the Code of Practice..."? I doubt it. But we'll have to wait and see.