Friday 25 May 2012

Pick Your Own Bishop

Why are the amendments the bishops have made to the women bishops legislation a problem?

Personally, I can accept the technical point about the delegation/derivation of Episcopal authority. I don’t think it says anything new, but if it clarifies the position helpfully for some people then fair enough. (The point – for those of you fortunate enough not to have been following this debate in detail – is that whilst any assistant bishops only legally act in a diocese because of delegation from the diocesan bishop, the ‘bishopyness’ of their actions comes not from that delegation but from their own consecration as bishops. If that was news to you, then you may have found this clarification helpful.)

The problem is the other amendment. This says that the bishops and priests to be selected to minister in parishes that won’t accept a woman (or a man who ordains women) must be people who will exercise their ministry in accordance with the theological convictions about women of the parish concerned.

Now, on the face of it this seems sensible enough: don’t give a conservative evangelical bishop to a high anglo-catholic parish, and vice versa. And some of the bishops (such as Pete Broadbent, on his blog earlier this week) are saying that is precisely what was intended. If so, they have made a very bad job of drafting a piece of law to give effect to that intention. It is a hard thing to put into law – that’s precisely why the legislative groups that have worked so hard on this legislation rejected it. If you can't define something, don't write it into the statute books.

What the amendment actually says is that any theological conviction about women will be supported, with priests and bishops ordained specially for it. It seems clear that the point of this is to ensure that parishes that want a man who has never ordained a woman or (in some circles) had anything to do with ordained women, get what they want. This is bad enough, as it means the theology that women taint men (see 'The Female Ick Factor' blog post below) gets legal backing.

But the amendment is even worse than this, as it is so loosely drawn. There is no legal definition of what might be the limits of valid theological convictions about women. Synod has said in the past that those who dissent from women’s ordination may be considered loyal Anglicans, but this amendment goes far beyond that. It doesn’t say that if you dissent from women’s ordination you will be provided for – the legislation already said that. This says that whatever your particular views about women, however offensive, the hierarchy will support you in the consequent discrimination. They will even try (according to the archbishops’ notes to their press release) to make sure that they can keep a supply of special bishops on hand for ever to make sure this discrimination is fostered.

Why does this matter? Because if we pass this amended legislation, we will be asking Parliament to enshrine in English law that the established church will support any views about discrimination against women.

This goes far beyond the Act of Synod (the hastily bolted-on amendment the bishops made to the women priests legislation in 1992, which set up the concept of 'Flying Bishops'). That was presented at the time as kind, generous, pastoral provision for those who couldn’t in conscience accept the ordination of women – and has since been used to set up as close to an alternative church as possible. It is hard to imagine this amendment not being used in the same way, whatever the bishops say now.

But even the Act of Synod never said that you could choose your own alternative bishop based on whether they agreed with you. If you felt you needed a male priest or bishop, that would be respected. That is what the unamended legislation we had until this week said too.

Now the bishops seem to want to create a pick-your-own-bishop market.

The church is used to living with disagreement. What we don’t do is write it into our laws. At the height of the Arian controversy in the early church, or in the Reformation debates in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people managed with the bishop they had, even when they disagreed with him about virtually everything. Do we really want to say that the ordination of women is the most divisive issue we have ever faced as a church? That women are so uniquely problematic that on this issue, and this issue only, people are free to choose an alternative bishop who fully supports their views? Correction – people who disagree with the ordination of women are free to choose a bishop who fully supports their views.

The church needs to repent of its long history of treating women as a second-class creation.

We need to recognise that enshrining discrimination in church laws makes us complicit in creating a climate in which it is OK to treat women as less valuable than men.

Before this week, all the debate was about whether or not this legislation would get passed in July. What the bishops have done means that either outcome is a depressing prospect.


  1. Simply, elegantly, profoundly said Miranda. Thank you.

  2. Quite - it is horrific that women are being treated in this way by the Church and completely unacceptable that discrimination of this depth be allowed to be enshrined in law. It needs all the strong women and men in the church and indeed society as a whole to work against this discrimination.
    Well done Miranda for putting your strong, coherent voice to this worthy cause.

  3. The "on grounds of theological conviction" phrase references what is already in the Measure at Clause 3 (1). Interestingly, the phrase was inserted there during the Revision Committee precisely to prevent parishes passing a resolution for a letter of request on grounds other than their convictions that women should not be priests. It was part of the series of amendments which was drafted by the Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich. So you're arguing about something which was already in the Measure that WATCH and others urged us to pass. The House of Bishops amendment seeks to elucidate what might be required by a parish who submitted such a letter of request.

  4. Amanda, do you not think it a tad strange that legislation designed to make 'provision' for those who cannot accept women bishops was so worded that bishops and clergy who supported women’s ordination could have been appointed to minister in parishes which didn’t?

    Secondly, calling this a 'pick your own bishop' arrangement is just hyperbole.

    Thirdly, the Provinical Episcopal Visitor scheme was only one of several options available under the Act of Synod. People seem to have forgotten that a local or a regional scheme was the preferred method, using existing bishops in dioceses. The PEV scheme was only a back-up, but came into prominence as the first two options were first largely ignored and then rendered impossible by the lack of suitable bishops being consecrated.

    To be honest, this all looks a bit over-blown.

    1. No, I don't think the first point you make is strange! If people dont believe a woman is a bishop, I can understand why they'd want a male bishop. I can even understand why they'd want a male bishop with the right pedigree, ordained by a male bishop, consecrated by a male bishop. But I think a line is crossed when you say that they need a bishop who doesn't ordain women, and who doesn't believe that women can be ordained. That is picking and choosing a bishop who agrees with you, not being provided with a bishop you think is a bishop.

    2. Or (B), the entire concept of bishops - male or female - is an irrelevant anachronism.

  5. "What the amendment actually says is that any theological conviction about women will be supported, with priests and bishops ordained specially for it. It seems clear that the point of this is to ensure that parishes that want a man who has never ordained a woman or (in some circles) had anything to do with ordained women, get what they want."

    The amendment does not say that at all

    “5 (1) The House of Bishops shall draw up, and promulgate, guidance in a Code of Practice as to... (c) 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 House of Bishops must produce guidance on the point. There is no suggestion nor requirement that such guidance will affirm the principle set out in 5(1)(c).

  6. Further on the Act of Synod, the Act allowed that the Archbishop of Canterbury could, acting on his own authority, either personally or through a commissary, ordain, license and institute clergy in the diocese of an existing bishop, not as his delegate but simply provided he did not object (in other words the existing bishop retained his full authority). This is more than explicitly envisaged by the current legislation, but was accepted by the Church of England then and since.

    The circumstances in which he was to do this were where a bishop would not ordain women himself, but would not seek to prevent women being ordained in his diocese. (Section 11 of the Act -- the Archbishop or commissary would, of course, be in favour of women's ordination and would therefore have been 'picked' on that basis.

    The principle to which you object has, therefore, I think, been in place for a long time.

  7. Even before he has been enthroned - people are howling at the next Bishop of Chichester to ensure that the next bishop of Lewes to replace Wallace Benn (pbuh) ordains women. The sage Lord Habgood once suggested that every deanery include at least one traditionalist parish - similarly should not every diocese include one bishop who does and one who does not ordain women? On another issue this system of diversity seems to be working well in the diocese of Salisbury where the diocesan is in favour of "Gay marriage" and a suffragan is firmly against but the two bishops concerned (Salisbury & Sherborne) seem to rub along quite nicely together. There would, of course, be a problem where dioceses such as Portsmouth only have one bishop but the system of continuing PEVs could solve that little local difficulty. Thus our fragile unity which threatens to be shattered forever if the legislation is passed in July could be maintained and we can all episcopally "Pick and Mix" to our hearts content.

  8. This is the inevitable fallout of the well-intentioned mistake known as "flying bishops." England has written a new heresy (now working its way through the schismatical tendencies of the American far right) that every individual Christian is entitled to have a bihop who agrees with them about whatever issue happens to be their personal obsession.

  9. My concern is that this amendment is so loosely phrased that it is wide open to abuse in the future. Anyone who believes otherwise is either being disingenuous or naive. And yes, the whole of the problem comes down to the Act of Synod and that we still appear to be in a period of Reception and still ordaining priests who will not accept women's ordination. If that legislation had never been passed we would not be stuck with the dreadful mess that we have now. However you like to see it, there is a two tier system of bishops and priests, those who are seen as clean and can minister to anyone and those who are tainted by their association with the ministry of women priests. I find the whole situation deeply hurtful and insulting - yet the voices of those who fear 'taint' is deemed more valuable than mine and the many women priests in our Church.