The General Synod has voted in the past, by a majority vote, that it has no theological objection to women being consecrated as Bishops and that legislation should be drafted to effect this. The Synod has also voted to make provision for those who for various reasons cannot accept this innovation.
The February Synod will have before it three main documents:
- Draft Legislation
- A draft Amending Canon” to change the Canons of the Church.
- A draft Code of Practice.
If agreed then a Revision Committee will be established to revise the legislation and amending canon in the light of the debate and subsequent submissions. The revised legislation is scheduled to return to General Synod in February 2010.
The Revision Committee will have a core “Steering Committee” made up of supporters of the legislative package whilst there will be two or three “opponents” on the full Committee. Therefore, substantial revision is unlikely.
If the legislation is defeated it will be so at the Final Approval debate when it requires a 2/3rds majority of each of the three houses of Synod (Laity, Clergy and Bishops). In the key debates to date there have been more than a third of the House of Laity opposed to the proposals.
The key issue at this is the nature of provision and whether it is acceptable both to the majority wanting change and the minority who consider the change erroneous.
The evangelical objection is primarily that in the Biblical injunctions regarding those who should be appointed as Presbyers/Episcopoi it is stated that they should be men (1 Tim 3, Titus 1). This is an outworking of God’s order in creation (cf 1 Tim 2) which is also seen in the Christian family and reflects the practice of the Lord Jesus himself. The term “headship” is often used in contemporary discussion (Eph 5) though this can sometimes obscure the simple command in Scripture. The instructions can themselves be seen worked out in the New Testament Church in that men were appointed presbyters and also in relation to other issues that (eg 1 Cor 14). With almost no exceptions the churches followed the Biblical teaching until the mid to late 20th century.
Thus, there is no Biblical warrant for the admission of women to the office of presbyter/episcopos though there are many and varied examples of women ministering in other roles, and injunctions to do so.
Many evangelical Anglicans also assert that because there is no warrant in Scripture and clear teaching to the contrary it is “unlawful” for the Church of England to permit the ordination of women priests or consecrate women bishops on the basis of Article XX.
The Draft Legislation
The Legislative Drafting Group, which was formerly known as the Manchester Group have done a good job within the parameters set them by the General Synod. They have gone as far as they were able in making provision, but nevertheless this is inadequate and falls short of what had been requested.
Church Society along with Reform and the Fellowship of Word and Spirit had responded positively to two previously reports exploring provision and were prepared to accept some form of Transferred Episcopal Oversight if the provision of this was set out in legislation. However, the House of Bishops did not bring this forward as an option and attempts to continue to explore it were blocked by a minortiy of the General Synod in July 2008. The Draft Legislation thus envisages delegation of episciopal functions rather than transfer and the key provisions being in a code of practice rather than in legislation. These points are explained further below.
The report proposes that there should be “complementary bishops”, a new title attempting to establish something without too much baggage being attached to the name in advance.
1. The list of functions which can be provided by the “complementary bishops” seems to include everything which has been asked for including appointments and sponsorship for ordination. The Canons will require that someone coming under their oversight will also owe canonical obedience to the complementary bishop.
2. The Measure itself provides for the creation of the “complementary bishops” and the Canons will make specific reference to them. This is stronger than the present position of the flying bishops under the 1994 Act of Synod (which despite its name is more like a Code of practice).
3. Whilst it is intended to provide “complementary bishops” clergy and laity will still be under the authority of the Diocesan Bishop. Although this may satisfy some it is not going to satisfy most since their objection is precisely to the point of oversight.
Church Society has argued previously that at a minimum there needs to be statutory transfer. This would be provision in the legislation that a PCC or similar can transfer to a complementary bishop by passing the necessary resolution(s).
4. The proposed change to Canon A4 will require all clergy etc. to assert that the ordination and consecration of women is lawful. Some opponents may feel able to assent to it because clearly a law will have been passed permitting the consecration of Bishops whilst allowing them the conscience to dissent from it. Others, however, will feel unable to affirm that it is lawful because they believe it to be clearly contrary to Scripture and because the context is Article XX which states: “It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written”.
5. All clergy will still be required to owe canonical obedience to the diocesan bishop whether this is a man or a woman and to swear the Oath to this effect. Clearly this is problematic for those who are opposed.
6. The present provision in legislation for the 1,000+ parishes who have passed Resolutions A or B will be removed and replaced with provision in a Code. It is possible, however, that any Resolution passed at the date legislation comes into effect will remain binding until rescinded.
7. One of the great fears is that a Code is more easily rescinded. There has already been pressure to get rid of the 1994 Act of Synod, though it has not yet succeeded. If more of the provisions were in legislation then this would encourage people to believe that they are going to endure as long as there is a need for them.
It is being proposed to strengthen the nature of the code so that full debate would be required in Synod, but this rests on the decision of the Business Committee.
8. The legislation will not be enacted until the Code of Practice has been agreed, but the Code cannot properly be approved until the legislation has received final approval. Since so much rests on the Code this means Synod would be asked to approve something without knowing for certain what the details will be. This is always an issue with Codes but it seems all the more sharp here because of what is at stake.
- Ultimately those who accept the Biblical teaching wish to see this legislation fail because they believe it is wrong in principle.
- If, however, the legislation goes ahead then many will be unable to accept the oversight of women bishops and provision will be needed otherwise they will be forced to leave the Church of England. It is well known that many Anglo-Catholics left the Church of England because of the 1992 Measure. However, a number of Evangelical clergy also left and no doubt laity. In addition there is said to be a growing number of younger men, and women, nurtured in the C of E, who are unwilling to enter Anglican ministry because they believe they are required or will be required to accept something which is contrary to Scripture. They are ministering elsewhere to the detriment of the Church of England.
- More of the provisions need to be put into legislation, both to ensure that they are properly followed (some Bishops seem to have a cavalier attitude to existing codes of practice).
- There needs to be transfer of oversight rather than delegation since the latter does not address the principal objections of those opposed.
- The trigger for transfer must be by resolution of the PCC etc. rather than petition to the Diocesan.
- Existing provision in relation to resolutions A & B must be retained in legislation.
- The change to Canon A4 is unacceptable; it is best left alone.
It should be noted that since the 1992 legislation to ordain women as presbyters the Church of England has seen a continued, indeed increased decline in the number of male clergy. There are now 3,600 fewer male clergy than there were in 1991. For male clergy:
- From 1968 to 1972 the average annual decline was 1.68%.
- From 1972 to 1991 the average annual decline was 0.71%.
- From 1991 to 2007 the average annual decline was 2.15%.
- Including the women, the decline from 1991 to 2007 was still 1.23% per year.
Further, since 1991 there appears to have been only one Bishop appointed who is known to be evangelical and opposed to the ordination of women. It is known that at least 5% and perhaps closer to 10% of the stipendiary clergy are evangelicals opposed, and yet amongst there 110+ Bishops there is only one of their number and none in the House of Bishops (Diocesans and a few elected Suffragans). Yet there have been around 180 appointments of Bishops since 1991. This amounts to clear discrimination against evangelicals and is part of the reason why they are so distrustful of the present legislation and scornful of the tactics of the House of Bishops in which their views are not represented.
David Phillips, January 2009