September 19, 2012

Thoughts on the Struggle to Allow Women Bishops in England

The road to allowing women bishops in the Church of England has been long and painful. Approval of women bishops—not the last step before women priests can be made bishops, I hasten to add—will likely come when the General Synod meets in November.

Passage of the women bishops legislation became more likely September 12, 2012, when Church of England bishops announced substitute wording for clause 5(1)(c). Clause 5(1) is a list introduced by
The House of Bishops shall draw up, and promulgate, guidance in a Code of Practice as to—
Church of England logo
Clause 5(1)(c) which was added by the bishops last May, now reads
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
the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request under section 3
The issue, of course, is how far the church is willing to bend over backward to accommodate the minority, most especially (though not exclusively) Anglo-Catholics, who want nothing to do with ordained women. Supporters of ordaining women do not want women bishops to be a lesser species of bishop than are male bishops, although it is hard to see any legislation that provides for asymmetric treatment of male and female clergy as being other than discriminatory.

As an established church, the Church of England is very reluctant to make decisions that alienate groups of its members, irrespective of how reactionary members of such groups might be. We saw, in the case of flying bishops, an institution intended to placate those opposed to the ordination of women, that the church would rather institutionalize opposition to the majority position than risk the loss or disgruntlement of members holding opposing views. Whereas The Episcopal Church simply committed to the ordination of women and enjoys virtually no opposition to women clergy now, opposition to women clergy seems as strong as ever in the Church of England. The church seems about to institutionalize opposition to women clergy yet again.

Well, the legislation in England is what it is, and reactions to the bishops’ latest wording are beginning to trickle in. So far, those reactions seem rather cautious. What can we say about the latest version of clause 5(1)(c)?

The previous version of clause 5(1)(c) seemed to guarantee to parishes opposing women clergy the right to a male priest or bishop who agrees with their theological views. Moreover, since the legislation must eventually be approved by Parliament and the Queen, the original clause would have enshrined opposition to women clergy in law. And it would have limited the authority of women bishops in a way not applicable to male bishops.

In contrast, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argues that the new wording of the controversial clause reassures the minority that its position is respected:
The important thing there is that notion of respect. ‘Respect’ means taking somebody else in their own terms; letting them define what they believe, what they think, who they are.  It means trying to find a settlement that allows them to recognise in whatever emerges that their views have been taken seriously.  And because of all that, this takes for granted a process of engagement—a building of relationship between bishop and parish in this potentially quite difficult and challenging area.
 I suspect, however, that different people will read different messages into the word “respects” in clause 5(1)(c).  In America, these two sentences carry rather different ideas:
  • She respected his beliefs.
  • She respected his last wishes.
The first sentence  is about acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs, without any suggestion that those beliefs are correct or demand actions by others consistent with them. The second sentence suggests nothing of the reasonableness of the last wishes, only a willingness to perform whatever was requested.

It is clear, I think, that one side can read the new clause as requiring that the views of the requesting parish simply not be denigrated. The other side can read the clause as requiring that the wishes of the parish be fulfilled.

The Archbishop of Canterbury (and the dictionaries I consulted) seems to favor the interpretation of recognizing legitimate concerns without necessarily fully acceding to a parish’s requests, but I wonder if accepting the legislation as it now stands isn’t buying a pig in a poke. It is the Code of Practice, which will be in the hands of the bishops after the women bishops legislation is approved by General Synod, that will determine what clause 5(1)(c) really means in practice.

In light of the modification made by the bishops to the legislation last May, do supporters of women bishops have any reason to believe that the Code of Practice won’t give away the store to their theological opponents?


  1. You are wise to point out the different meanings of "respect" but I think in this situation, and with regard to the object being a formal request, it means to "heed" or "abide by." These are "obsolete" meanings of the word in common use, but still lively in a legal context.

    I don't think this will mean giving away the store, exactly. It will be an instance of local option writ large, and it will not be sustainable in the long run. It may help ease the transition -- rather like provisions to allow use of the 1928 BCP.

  2. We saw, in the case of flying bishops, an institution intended to placate those opposed to the ordination of women, that the church would rather institutionalize opposition to the majority position than risk the loss or disgruntlement of members holding opposing views. Hookup Apps


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