Friday, 7 June 2013

Option Two with teeth

Well, I promised to say which option of the four from GS 1886 I'd choose as the way forward on women in the episcopate, so here it is.

(Though I'd actually prefer to wait, and have much longer to think  and talk, and most importantly pray. If Parliament wants to intervene it would be a bad thing, but the dear old Church of England could simply ignore them - you can pass a law saying women can be bishops, but you can't compel the Church to appoint any (look at the Church of Ireland, or the Easter Act 1928) - however, waiting just isn't going to happen)

A reminder of the options, as I summarized them in my last post:
1) women can become bishops, and resolutions A, B, and C disappear; there is a declaration from the House of Bishops or an Act of Synod which set out national standards for the care of those opposed;

2) as option (1), but there would be an Act of Synod which would have to come into force simultaneously with the Measure to permit women bishops; this Act of Synod would be mentioned in the Measure, and could only be amended or repealed with two-thirds majorities in all three houses of General Synod;

3) an Act of Synod would cater for those unable to accept the ministry of women bishops, but at the parish level Resolutions A and B would be retained;

4) provision for opponents would be contained in the Measure itself.

I have strong sympathy for those opposed to the consecration of women who would like legally binding safeguards, such as would be provided by options three and four. They worry, not without reason, that it is hard to trust that whatever provision is made will be followed unless it is enforceable. They point out, quite correctly, that all sorts of areas of Church life (including the appointment of clergy) are governed by ecclesiastical laws.

But it is becoming clear that, after the "best we can offer" provision of the previous draft Measure was rejected in November, groups like WATCH would not allow anything nearly as "generous" to get past Synod. The Bishop of Willesden tweeted this: "Opponents lost their last chance of legislation with Nov debacle. Neither GS nor Parliament will now allow discrimination in law." Whether he's right about the second half of that or not, I think it represents a pretty common attitude.

So if options three and four are unrealistic, what about one and two? As I said in my previous post on this topic, it just doesn't look as if it can create the trust required, and it looks too much like victory for WATCH.

That leaves option two. The House of Bishops don't outright reject it, but they don't think it's simple enough. Well, I think we need to live with a bit more complexity, if we're going to do this properly - after all, it's not hugely more complex. And it does have the benefit of creating far more grounds for trust, because it makes clear that the Act of Synod it calls for can't just be done away with (it's required by the Measure itself) and it can't easily be whittled away by the majority (a fear of the opponents).

But there are two things I'd like to see included in the Act of Synod, in order to give it enough teeth, and make sure that the minority feel they're being taken seriously.

One is that failure to follow its terms, especially by a bishop (given they have the strongest hand in clergy appointments), should be explicitly stated to be capable of being misconduct under the Clergy Discipline Measure as "conduct unbecoming a clerk in Holy Orders". A complainant would still have to demonstrate failure to observe the Act of Synod, and the "capable of being" means that a defence of "no reasonable other option" would be possible. The benefit of this for building trust would be that opponents would have real recourse to a remedy. If a complaint is upheld, one of the options is go for mediation as a first step (and this is always to be preferred). If mediation fails, an injunction can be issued, requiring the respondent to follow the terms of the Act of Synod. This idea has teeth.

The second is rather less important, as it is unlikely to be used, but it would highly symbolic. One of the fears of opponents is that without the support of statutory provision, a parish which refused the appointment of a women priest could be taken to court for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Specifically, the persons responsible for the decision (the incumbent in cases of appointing a curate, the parish representatives in the case of an incumbent) would have to defend the suit at their own cost. They would most likely win (compare Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, which refuses to accept applications from men for Fellowships), but that's small comfort. So, my suggestion would be the Act of Synod should state that the Church of England should pay the costs of anyone taken to court in such circumstances. This could presumably be done by taking out some kind of insurance policy, and given the very low chances of any suit succeeding, this would cost the Church very little. The symbolic value for the minority would be immense however.

That's my view on what the way forward looks like. I think it should be acceptable to both sides as giving sufficient grounds for trust. I'd really welcome comments from anyone reading this.

No comments:

Post a Comment