Sunday 24 February 2013

Schrodinger's Cat Theology? Response to Women Bishops Consultation


Response to GS Misc 1042

Women in the Episcopate: A New Way Forward

Thank you for the discussion paper GS Misc 1042, and for the time and energy that has been put into restarting the process towards removing the legal obstacles to women becoming bishops. I shall group my responses firstly in relation to the four propositions, and then give some more general observations.

1.1 I agree with the first proposition, that there is no scope for further tweaking of the measure that was defeated in November.

1.2 I am very relieved to see that this conclusion has been reached as a result of the consultations this month. I, and the many other women (both lay and ordained) who have been in touch with me as Chair of WATCH NE, feel that we had in fact compromised too much in that measure. We were fearful that further tweaks would be proposed, compromising the purpose of the legislation even further. I cannot see any way in which the defeated legislation can be further adapted in a way that would be acceptable to both those who do and dont wish to see women admitted to the episcopate.

1.3 Whilst I would like to see women admitted to the episcopate as soon as possible, my main concern at this point is that the sense of urgency should not mean we rush into unwise legislation.

2. 1 I also endorse the second proposition, that questions around jurisdiction should not be re-opened.

2.2 Having women as bishops is not an end in itself. It is a necessary but not sufficient means to the end of demonstrating, by our ordering of our church, that the Church of England believes men and women to be equally and jointly made in the image of God, and to be theologically in the same category.There is, therefore, simply no point in allowing women to be bishops on different terms to men, or in redefining what a bishop is in order to let women in. That would not be 'removing the legal obstacles to women becoming bishops', it would be only allowing women to dress up like bishops whilst retaining a separate class of 'real' bishops. I would prefer us not to enact any legislation at all than to enshrine discrimination in law, which is why I would have voted against the proposals that were before Synod in July 2012.

3.1 I also think there is a good deal of wisdom in the third proposition, that the whole 'deal' should be on the table at one time. I hope very much that this will in fact be a simple matter, as a single clause or similar measure (as has been used in every other Province of the Anglican Communion) should be all that is needed.

3.2 But whether or not that point is accepted, I do agree that the uncertainty surrounding the prospect of an unseen Code of Practice was very unhelpful in debating the defeated legislation. Certainly in my experience of going to Deanery Synod debates about the legislation, with Sr. Anne Williams, we found that this uncertainty about the Code caused the most disquiet, regardless of peoples views on the substance of the proposals.

4. 1 I am instinctively drawn to the first part of the final proposition, suggesting shorter, simpler legislation. Anything other than a simple statement that both women and men can have a vocation to the episcopate inevitably clouds the statement of equality before God that is the primary purpose of this legislation. However, brevity is a means rather than an end. I would prefer lengthier legislation that spelled out equality, to a brief measure that enshrined discrimination.

4.1.1 I also note that several years ago, simple legislation (popularly known as a single clause measure) was the preferred option of Forward in Faith as well as groups such as WATCH. I remember being asked by New Directions to write an article explaining why I supported a Single Clause Measure, just as they did, but for different reasons. At the time I recall suggesting that perhaps they wanted a Single Clause Measure because they thought it would be more easily defeated, but I was assured that it was because it was the only theologically coherent way forward. I hope, therefore, that such support for this proposition is reflected in the responses you receive to this consultation.

4.2 The second part of the fourth proposition is less clear than the others, and there are two elements of it which I think are dangerous: the references to a sense of security, and to no new elements of compromise.

4.2.1 First, whilst I accept that 'a greater sense of security....[of] an accepted and valued place in the Church of England' for those who do not accept the ordination of women is desirable, I do not agree that this is a viable aim for this legislation. There are three reasons for this.

4.2.2 How can we measure a 'sense of security', or whether it has been achieved?
It can only ever be measured by whether those involved say it has been given. This raises several subsequent concerns.

4.2.3 Those opposed to the ordination of women are by no means a homogenous group, so does every individual need to feel more secure? Or just a majority of the minority?

4.2.4 More fundamentally, at least some people demonstrably oppose women's ordination on theological grounds that are at best mistaken, and at worst heretical. I refer you, for example, to the speech in November's debate which argued that women should be subordinate to men based on a supposed inherent subordination within the Trinity: a view clearly beyond the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. So if we are to aim for a 'sense of security' of being 'accepted and valued' within the Church of England, we need to be very clear indeed that it is the people who hold these views who are 'accepted and valued', not the views themselves. Or, if certain views contrary to the mainstream doctrine of the Church are to be declared 'accepted and valued', then we need to be very clear indeed which ones these are. Surely the purpose of this legislation cannot be to assure everyone, whatever their idiosyncratic views on creation, the Trinity, the Bible, or whatever else underlies their belief that women cannot be ordained, that those views are all necessarily 'accepted and valued'?

4.2.5 It is also perhaps worth saying that we, as women clergy, would also value a sense of security. The debate so far has consistently given the impression that the emotions of those pained by our ordination are privileged above our emotions. We are apparently meant to be so grateful to be allowed to be ordained, that should be enough. Yet the majority of women will not, of course, become bishops: most do not have that vocation.  Simply allowing a few women, grudgingly, to be bishops will not of itself make all lay and ordained women feel fully 'accepted and valued' within the Church of England. We would like our theological worth and equal status as children of God to be fully affirmed. It may be that this is fundamentally incompatible with those who do not agree that this is the case also feeling fully affirmed. If so, the Church will have to choose which is the more important statement to make.

4.2.6 Furthermore, in saying that we want to achieve a 'sense of security', we are reliant entirely on those who do not want this legislation to be passed to inform us of what they deem to be acceptable. A personal anecdote may illustrate why I think this is a foolish way to proceed. Last autumn, when the 'Appleby Amendment' was published, I spoke with many members of Synod, both for and against the principle of women's ordination. In one long conversation with a member of the Catholic Group in Synod, he told me that the Group had discussed the legislation and had agreed that they could neither vote for the legislation, nor abstain, because the first clause said that women could be bishops. They could, however, live with it if passed, he said. Others will have heard similar comments.
Yet none of the Catholic Group in Synod ever said publicly that they could live with this legislation if passed, despite intending to vote against it, a statement which may well have influenced some uncertain voters to vote in favour. Nor did they make it clear that whatever the 'provisions', they would vote against the legislation because it said women could be ordained. I cannot see how it would ever be in the interests of those who genuinely do not believe that women can or should be ordained to admit that yes, they have been given a 'greater sense of security' by new proposals. Simply by saying that they dont feel secure, the status quo of the current impasse would be maintained.
I therefore think that this is an illusory goal for this legislation to aim at.

4.3. I am deeply concerned about the final part of proposition 4b, 'not involving...any new elements of compromise on matters of principle' (my emphasis). The members of WATCH NE who have been in touch with me about this matter have been unanimous that they now feel that the defeated legislation went too far in compromising the essential matters of principle involved. All of them, and the vast majority of other clergy and laity in this diocese with whom I have spoken, feel that since the compromise offered in November was rejected, only the simplest possible legislation will now do. I would be deeply disturbed to think that elements of compromise offered last year in the spirit of a bilateral stretching a hand over the abyss were to be taken as the basis on which new legislation could be built.
Again and again in recent months, clergy and laity have said to me that, after the first shock of the legislation being defeated, they felt their eyes had been opened to just how much of a dirty compromise it had been. 'Appeasement' is a word that has been used. Since we were not met half way those opposed to womens ordination have made no compromises, in the final outcome - the mood is no longer to offer those compromises that were rejected. So I would be minded to accept this element of the proposition only with the deletion of the word 'new', italicised in my quotation above.

5.1 Following on from point 4.3.5 above, I wonder if the only way to resolve the current impasse is to destabilise it. Those who are fundamentally opposed to the ordination of women are currently relatively happy with the status quo, and have no incentive to change it. One creative way forward, therefore, would be to change the status quo.

5.2 This could most simply be achieved by allowing General Synod to debate, in July, the currently parked Diocesan Synod motions asking General Synod to rescind the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod.
This would test the mind of Synod on whether the Act of Synod is still fit for purpose. If it were rescinded, we would then be able to live out the experiment of how we get on as a church without what is widely perceived to be a legislative safeguard. It would be a relatively low-risk experiment, as it would be fairly straightforward for the Synod to reenact a similar piece of legislation if it were in fact found to be necessary. But if we were able to find ways of living and working together without such a Code of Practice, that would put us in a much better position to find a new way forward together.

5.2.1 At the same time, allowing these motions to be debated would go some way to restoring trust in the synodical process among Diocesan Synods. One of the most damaging side effects of the stalling of the legislative process in November was the fact that the Diocesan Synods felt ignored and sidelined by the process, having been asked their opinions and then ignored. Rushing to start another central process and telling those Diocesan Synods who have been waiting patiently for years for their motion to be debated that they are once again to be ignored, would be both rude and a lost opportunity.

5.3 One other solution that has been canvassed has been rescinding the relevant clauses of the 1992 Measure, and leaving some parts of it intact. I do not believe this is a good way forward.

5.3.1 I have spent some time analysing the initially attractive simply delete clause 1.2 of the 1992 measure option. (Nothing in this Measure shall make it lawful for a woman to be consecrated to the office of bishop). At first glance this possibility has the advantage of simplicity, and of leaving largely intact a package of provisions that those who are opposed can manifestly already live with. However, it is more complex than it at first appears.

5.3.2 In the first place, it would not be enough to simply delete clause 1.2 of the Measure. Clause 2 would also need to be deleted (this clause has never in fact been used, and is a dead letter since it deals with dioceses being officially free of women clergy, which none now are).

5.3.3 Clause 3, allowing parishes to pass either Resolutions A or B, could in theory be retained. However, whilst this might satisfy congregationally-minded parishes who simply wish to avoid having a woman incumbent, it would, when there was a female diocesan bishop, be meaningless for those whose objection to women bishops is based on an ecclesiology in which the local priests ministry is derived from that of the bishop. It would also not cater for those who wish to ensure they have a male priest with a male pedigree (i.e., not ordained by a bishop who is a woman). So in fact this would presumably need to be re-written, and we would end up with something not dissimilar to the legislation that was defeated in November (which proposition 1 says is not workable).

5.3.4 Clause 6 of the Measure, which covers the discriminatory discharge of certain functions, would also need to be removed. Clause 6 explicitly says that sex discrimination against a woman in respect of ordination, licensing or appointments is legal. This is of questionable legality following the most recent Equality Act. It is also inconsistent with the various pronouncements of the House of Bishops that the appointments processes will be blind to peoples views on this matter.

5.3.5. Even if all these changes were made to the Measure, and it simply said that women could be ordained and that parishes could choose to opt out of having us as their priest (but not their bishop), the question remains what would happen with the Act of Synod. It would not work in its current form, but it is hard to believe that tweaking it would lead to a better result than the legislation that was rejected in November (which was essentially an attempt at just this). So essentially this route is ruled out if we accept the first proposition of GS Misc 1042.

5.4 Moreover, my experience of the process so far has made it much clearer, to my mind, that this is the time for the Church of England to say that any notion that womens orders are still in some sense provisional (the notion of a period of reception) is at an end.
Ordination is ordination. Whatever individual people may believe about the desirability, or validity, of womens ordination, the Church of England, by ordaining women, has made a public statement that it is a church that ordains women. As a church we enact as much as declare our theology, and in ordaining women we have made clear that is our orthopraxy, our orthodoxy.

5.5 There is no integrity in a Church ordaining women and then trying to hold together, at an institutional level, the belief that we both are and are not ordained. This is Schrodingers Cat theology: are women both ordained and not ordained simultaneously until someone lifts the lid of the box to see? And is our state of ordination then determined by the beliefs of the beholder?
Individuals are free to believe that I am not ordained. And an individual believing that is of course as accepted and valued by God, and by the Church of England, as anyone else. But the Church of England has ordained me, and cant therefore enact with integrity the view that I might not be ordained.

5.6 I believe that much of our current impasse is a result of the muddled theology that led to the hasty passing of the Act of Synod, without anything like the scrutiny and consultation that every other step of this journey has undergone. The Act of Synod opened the way to rejecting the ministry of your diocesan bishop based on his beliefs, and that was a profoundly un-Anglican and certainly un-Catholic innovation. There must be no repetition of this in any new way forward.

5.7 Finally, I reiterate the point made above, that simple legislation opening the episcopate to women and men without any qualification or formal arrangements for those opposed to this move has been enacted in every relevant province of the Anglican Communion. I cannot see any reason why the case of the Church of England need be more complicated or more compromised. There is considerable experience among Anglican bishops overseas in managing the resulting tensions carefully and gracefully, and the group would do well to consult this body of available expertise.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Elegantly clear and well expressed. It's also true that, within the Lutheran Churches of the Porvoo Communion, the question of women's ordination and episcopacy has been dealt with in a single clause measure. Lightning has not struck.

  3. I have received this helpful clarification from William Fittall:
    For the record, simply to record that section 6 of the 1993 Measure was repealed- with the consent of the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops- in 2005 by regulations made by Parliament following an EU Directive. The regulations revised section 19 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975- which apply to all organised religion- in a way that meant that we no longer needed any special Church of England provision.

    The Equality Act 2010 preserved this provision though it introduced (by a side wind rather than as a matter of intention) a new awkwardness unique to the Church of England given the involvement of public authorities in episcopal appointments. It was for eth latter reason that clause 7 was included in the defeated draft measure.

    But section 6 is certainly repealed- and section 2 is a dead letter since it only applied to diocesans in post as at the coming into force of the measure and they have now all left office.

  4. Agree with everything you've said, Miranda.

    I'm particularly bothered by the continued inclusion of people's feelings being used as a criterion for whether we accept any new proposals. As you point out, anyone who is uncomfortable with women's ordained ministry is going to be uncomfortable with any step which takes us further away from seeing such ministry as provisional ('in reception') and so will genuinely be able to say that they do not feel they are being given an honoured/respected/secure place within the C of E if it goes ahead with such a move.

    It is the supposed provisionality of women's ordination that has encouraged some groups to see it as reversible and any move which forces them to accept that it is not is going to cause them a lot of discomfort.

    I don't want people not to be concerned about feelings, I would just like to see some parity. So if the feelings of those opposed to women's ordination are made a criterion of whether or not legislation is acceptable, the feelings of those in support of women's ordination and ordained women themselves should be given equal weight.

  5. Dear Miranda,

    Thank you for this clear and helpful response to the consultation. Can I pick up one aspect of your article? You say " One of the most damaging side effects of the stalling of the legislative process in November was the fact that the Diocesan Synods felt ignored and sidelined by the process, having been asked their opinions and then ignored."

    I believe that the damage was even greater, in that the bishops themselves undermined the moral force of the Diocesan Synods' votes, by not merely ignoring them, but by then adding new amendments to proposals that had already been passed by such a huge margin in the dioceses. As soon as new amendments were proposed, the unspoken message was "it's all still up for grabs". The bishops, collectively, should accept their part of the blame in the debacle that followed. I wasn't angry with those who voted against the proposals, so much as being angry with the bishops who had kicked the door wide open to such a vote. Had the proposals accepted by dioceses (however imperfect we all knew that they were) been left unchanged, it would have taken a very brave person indeed to face down the "voice" of the dioceses.

    Hopefully, good things can come out of this mess. Not only women bishops on a much simpler and fairer basis, but also a stronger demand from the grass roots of the C of E for their voice to be heard. I suspect that the bishops may rue the day when they finally woke up the grass roots. I'm not sure they want people in the parishes standing up and saying "Wait a minute. You don't speak for me."

  6. Miranda,

    all very good and sensible. Just a few comments, if I may:

    one of the aspects of reception is that whilst the ordination of women has arguably been received in the CofE (though given the vote of General Synod, it is arguable), those who lean on this matter would generally say that reception is not closed until something has been received by the wider catholic Church. What's lacking perhaps is a clear understanding of what "Reception" actually is;

    it seems to me reasonable to take account of the sense of security of those opposed, in that they are not the innovators in this - nevertheless they must be pushed to say what would satisfy them, and then not be allowed to move the goalposts, so that we all know what we are working with, and whether it can be accommodated or not (and I sense in the final analysis, not);

    I think rescinding the Act of Synod would be an excellent way forward (it is, as you say, a low risk experiment) - but this would mean giving the experiment time to work: we need to see a Code-of-Practiceless Church in action, which might mean waiting ten or fifteen years before doing anything else (and I suspect General Synod would be reluctant to rescind the Act without some guarantee that this time would be given).

  7. Thats an interesting point about timing, Bernard, though I would have thought 3-5 years would be long enough. In any case, a review body would presumably be established to monitor how things were going, and then relative success of different approaches, not least so that if it wasnt working we would know!

    1. I suggested 10-15 years on the grounds that it would be helpful to see how a significant number of bishops appointed after the experiment was started would deal with it, in order to see the experiment through to a clear result.

      One of the arguments for provision being made is that it was promised in 1992 (rightly or wrongly; it was probably a mistake); some say that the Church has changed since then, and so the promise is no longer valid. I don't buy that, personally. And it certainly worries "traditionalists" that there is a lack of evidence for people sticking to their word. We need that evidence if we are to move forward with the level of trust required to start healing the wounds.

  8. Thank you...really helpful response saying so much that needs to be heard.

  9. " is arguable), those who lean on this matter would generally say that reception is not closed until something has been received by the wider catholic Church"
    - Bernard Randall -

    But, Bernard, if we had to wait for reception by your definition of 'the wider catholic Church', we would never have received the grace of women priests in the Anglican Communion. It is imperitive, for the 'catholicity' of the Church of England to bring forward a form of single-clause measure, that will allow women clergy to take their rightful place within the episcopal governance of the C.of E.

    1. It would be nonsense to say that something can only be started once it s received, since it cannot be received until it has been experienced. So I suggest the cry of "if we had to wait for reception" so often heard is based on a misunderstanding.

      My point is that if the Church of England claims to be part of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church (which it does), it cannot declare that any innovation has been received if it is rejected by a clear majority of other Catholic Christians. That doesn't mean it can't say it is satisfied with its position, but nor can it properly require all its members to be convinced of the rightness of its position. Catholicity needs to work at both the local level (e.g. one bishop, one diocese) and at the world-wide level (the faith shared by everyone, everywhere). And there, for some, is the rub.

    2. Bernard wrote: "(The Church of England) cannot declare any innovation has been received if it is rejected by a clear majority of other Catholic Christians"

      Where does this leave Anglican orders (male as well as female)? The Roman Catholic Church does not recognise them - and it's been a long wait! ;-)

    3. There has never been any doubt over the fact of Orders in the Catholic Church, so the question of recognition of Orders between ecclesial groups is a different question to that of reception. The idea of the Church of England having priests is not in doubt - it's just that Rome says we've been doing it wrong all these years.

  10. Well, I guess we will just have to come to terms with that, the Church of England being one huge innovation in that frame of reference!

    I'd like to see some recognition of the damage done to ecumenical relations with other "innovative" churches, such as the Methodists, by our extended period of "reception" of women's ordained ministry.

    Time to affirm fully and unequvocally the ordained ministry of women - unless we are to go back to all male orders.

  11. "I'd like to see some recognition of the damage done to ecumenical relations with other "innovative" churches, such as the Methodists, by our extended period of "reception" of women's ordained ministry."

    Well, quite! Why is it only the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox who are considered in ecumenical relations and not Methodists, Baptists, Reformed Churches or Pentecostal Churches who have had women ministers (although clearly not universally) for years?

    I agree with the suggestion from Maggi Dawn in her recent book on this - it is time for the CofE to take a view on this issue: either it seems good to us and the Holy Spirit that both men and women can be deacons, priests and bishops in the CofE or it is not. It cannot be both.