Church of England resumes women bishops debate

By Matthew Davies
Posted Feb 7, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The key legislation that will enable women to be appointed and consecrated as bishops in the Church of England has returned to General Synod for further debate and final drafting during its Feb. 6-9 group of sessions in London.

During the past 18 months the legislation has been given the nod by 42 of the 44 diocesan synods throughout England, but it now requires a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of General Synod – bishops, clergy and laity – for it to be adopted. At least one third of members are new to synod since the July 2010 debate when the measure was first approved in its current form.

Also since that debate, a draft Code of Practice has been drawn up outlining provisions for those opposed to women’s ordination, such as providing male alternatives for traditionalists unable to accept the authority of a female bishop. The draft code can only be formalized and further debated by synod once the measure has been passed. Should the legislation not be amended during its current meeting, the measure is expected to come before synod for a final vote in July.

The full text of the measure is available here.

Bishop Nigel Stock of St. Edmundsbury & Ipswich, chair of the working group that prepared the draft code, delivered an opening address to synod on Feb. 7. He said that the working group had found “two knotty issues” in developing the code – how male bishops who would minister to those opposed to women bishops would be chosen and how they would function. Opponents to the code have objected that such an arrangement would undermine the ministry of women bishops and create a two-tier episcopate.

Christina Rees, a lay member of General Synod and former chair of women-bishop advocacy group Women and the Church, or WATCH, asked if the working group had sought examples of good practice from other places in the Anglican Communion where women already exercise episcopal ministry, and if so what did the group discover and how did they use that information.

Stock explained that the group had not explored such examples “because nowhere else [in the communion] has a measure like the one we’re proposing” and that the working group didn’t have time. “When we come to the point of implementing this [code] I think that would be fruitful,” he said.

Four provinces – the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Australia, and the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia –have women serving as bishops. In addition, the extraprovincial Episcopal Church of Cuba is led by a female bishop.

Eleven additional provinces have approved the ordination of women bishops but have yet to appoint or elect one.

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, who in 1996 became the fifth woman elected as a bishop in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, participated in a panel discussion sponsored by WATCH in London on Feb. 6 to coincide with the opening day of synod. Others on the panel included Bishop Susan Moxley of Nova Scotia, Canada, and the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the speaker in the U.K. House of Commons.

When it was suggested that the synod debates may be perceived as archaic by many Americans, Wolf told ENS that while some may view the contents of the debate in that way, “the challenge is fresh and timely: how will we be different together? I suspect that if we could find an answer to that question we would truly experience the kingdom of God.”

Assuming all stages of the legislative process proceed without delay, the first woman bishop could not be consecrated in England until at least 2014, since the measure also would require approval by the U.K. Parliament. Parliamentary approval is necessary because the measure effectively changes English law as the Church of England is an officially established Christian church with Queen Elizabeth II as its supreme governor. With the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee this year, synod members are reminded that Queen Elizabeth, a woman, has been head of the Church of England for 60 years.

On Feb. 6, a motion filed in the House of Commons by Labour Member of Parliament for Birkenhead Frank Field encouraged General Synod to move forward in passing the legislation recognizing that there is “overwhelming support” for women bishops.

In a separate press release, Field said that a group of MPs are calling on the Church of England to “get on with it.” The parliamentary motion, the release says, “aims to prevent members of the General Synod employing delaying tactics to prevent the decision coming to parliament for approval. Any such move will have little if any support from MPs who wish for the consecrations to proceed as quickly as possible.”

The General Synod began its steady course toward allowing women in the episcopate when in July 2005 it passed a motion to remove the legal obstacles to ordaining women bishops.

In July 2006, synod called for the practical and legislative arrangements of admitting women to the episcopate to be explored. It also called for the formation of a legislative drafting group to prepare a draft measure and amending canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles.

At its July 2008 group of sessions, synod agreed that it was the “wish of its majority … for women to be admitted to the episcopate” and affirmed that “special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests.”

General Synod voted in February 2009 to send a draft measure on women bishops to a revision committee so it could rework the legislation.

The revision committee met 16 times beginning in May 2009 and considered 114 submissions from synod members, and a further 183 submissions from others. In May 2010, the committee published its 142-page report, which offered a detailed analysis of the draft legislation in time for the July 2010 synod debate and vote.

The long path towards accepting women’s ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference called (via Resolutions 47-52) for the diaconate of women to be restored “formally and canonically,” adding that it should be recognized throughout the communion.

The first woman priest in the communion, Li Tim-Oi, was ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. Due to outside pressure she resigned her license, but not her holy orders, following World War II. In 1971, the Rev. Jane Hwang and the Rev. Joyce Bennett were ordained priests in the Diocese of Hong Kong, though their ministries were not recognized in many parts of the Anglican Communion.

In 1974, there was an “irregular” ordination of 11 women in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, which officially authorized women’s priestly ordination two years later.

Bishop Barbara Harris, now retired suffragan of Massachusetts, was elected in 1988 and became the Anglican Communion’s first woman bishop after her consecration and ordination in 1989.

The Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson made history in 1989 when she was elected as bishop of the Diocese of Dunedin, New Zealand, and became the first woman to serve as a diocesan bishop in the Anglican Communion.

The Rt. Rev. Mary Adelia McLeod, who was ordained a priest in 1980, was consecrated in 1993 as bishop of the Diocese of Vermont, becoming the first woman diocesan bishop in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. She retired in 2001.

The Rt. Rev. Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera became the first woman Anglican bishop in Latin America when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Church of Cuba in June 2007.

The Church of England opened the priesthood to women in November 1992, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate. More than 5,000 women have been ordained as priests in England since 1994 and today they represent nearly 40 percent of all clergy.

The General Synod is the national assembly of the Church of England which came into being in 1970 replacing an earlier body known as the Church Assembly. It continues a tradition of synodical government which, in England, has its origins in the medieval period.

— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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Comments (1)

  1. The cry goes up how long…a decision must be made now. We need to stop making excuses fir the inertia that infects so many churches (I supplied in 30+ London churches over the period of15 mons and half were dead). Now as a parish priest in 2 rural places the synod is a blurr (if even that to my folk) and their machinations are seen as costly, wasteful and disconnected. I am present as an exhibitor and feel the whole thing prowls around like a lion seeking to devour someone. I might add that as a liberal catholic who loves Mass, Mary, Walsingham, Benediction and Confession, and rejoices in priests and bishops of all sorts that are faithful to the gospel and the Anglican tradition, not to forget their people, fully know the feeling of isolation is real for liberal as well as trad catholics. Indeed Catholics within the C of E might well introduce novenas, rosary etc as Fresh Expressions and bring it to life. Even in the villages I find people love the buildings but do not come to church, and all have reasons..usually clergy based issues. Let’s get on with it, meaning the gospel, and share the faith of Him who loves us. Jim Rosenthal

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