Fulcrum Perspectives: Women Bishops Legislation

I am on the horns of a considerable dilemma. We are now at the point where it should be possible to admit women to the office of Bishop, and thus to full participation in the ministry of the Church of England.

Fulcrum Perspectives: Women Bishops Legislation

by Elaine Storkey

I am on the horns of a considerable dilemma. We are now at the point where it should be possible to admit women to the office of Bishop, and thus to full participation in the ministry of the Church of England. Like so many others, I have become convinced, over the years, that this is the outworking of biblical vision for the church, something I have written, worked and prayed for, hoping that we would know the unity of the Holy Spirit as we moved on together. Each time the issue has come before the General Synod I feel we have moved closer to understanding the key issues. We have discussed them from the standpoint of theology, ecclesiology, pastoral care and mission. We have looked carefully at ways in which we can make provisions for those in the church who remain opposed to women’s full inclusion. We have sent the Measure around the dioceses for their scrutiny and approval. And we have done all this under the bemused gaze of the media, who wonder why on earth it takes us so long and why we don’t get on with it; when generations of convinced but bewildered parliamentarians, eager to ratify this change constitutionally, have been and gone. And now, after two decades of debate, six years of consultation, two years of careful scrutiny of submissions by the revision committee, twelve months of painstaking drafting, more months of discussion in deaneries and parish councils, with diocesan approval finally signed and sealed, and the day of decision fast approaching, I feel I cannot support the Measure in the amended form that it now comes before us.

So how has this sea-change come about? The process must seem odd in the extreme to anyone outside the procedures of Synod. At the end of the final drafting stage, the House of Bishops - an all-male assembly – has met behind closed doors, and brought forward new proposals in the shape of amendments, which cannot now be further amended by Synod. In my twenty-five years on Synod, I have never known this to happen – it is constitutional but unprecedented. It has been left to a group of six people, representing the convocations of clergy, bishops and the house of laity to decide, by majority, whether the amendments changed the Measure presented to the dioceses. It was hardly a representative group, since it included the two Archbishops who were party to the amendments, so the outcome was inevitable. Yet the groundswell of opinion outside that group is that Clause 5 now does change the Measure substantially, however subtly it is worded.

Some criticise Clause 5 because in recognizing the different theological positions in the Church of England, it seeks to provide for those who want episcopal oversight from someone who shares their own convictions. I am entirely in favour of provisions which enable people to express their strongly held convictions without fear of penalty but agree that this clause can reinforce separatism within the church. It is as if we have learned nothing from the problems with the Act of Synod, passed in the euphoria following the success of the Women Priests Measure in 1992, but which even some Anglo- Catholic parishes have ultimately experienced as fragmenting and divisive. The present clause will mean we must maintain a pool of both Catholic and Conservative Evangelical opponents to women within the church, from which we can select those who will offer alternative episcopal oversight.

My own concern, however, is with what this clause does to the authority of women bishops. One reason why I did not vote for the Act of Synod was that in setting up ‘flying bishops’ to give leadership to those who opposed the ordination of women, it misleadingly led people to believe that the Church of England now held ‘two integrities’: that women are ordained to the priesthood, and that women may not be priests. In fact the 1992 Measure allows no such dichotomy. It says the Church selects and ordains women for the priesthood, officially and fully, but recognizes that those who have theological objections to the church’s practice on this may hold those objections ‘with integrity.’

Tragically, clause 5 of the Bishops’ amendment to the measure carries this ambiguity into the episcopacy itself. It creates permanent insecurity about women’s legitimacy as bishops, and in doing so, inadvertently reinforces negative theologies of women which have dogged the church for hundreds of years. We need the church to lead our culture in celebrating the inclusion and empowering of women; to demonstrate the power of grace as women respond to the call of God to exercise their gifts and draw people into God’s love. Instead, we are left with a Measure which is begrudging and discriminatory and will leave women leaders to cope with the vulnerability and institutional uncertainty as to the validity of their orders.

So, what the Bishops are proposing in their amendments is not innocuous, generous, or a gracious way of living with difference, even though that may have been their intent. At the eleventh hour, this seems set to guarantee that reinforcements are brought in to the garrisons of dissent so that the battle about women's identity, office and authority can continue for decades still to come. Inspirational? No. Tragic? Yes.

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