Tuesday 9 July 2013

Starting again on women bishops

'So, are you pleased?'

'How are you feeling? happy?'

I lost count of how many times I was asked these questions at General Synod over the last couple of days. How was I feeling after the Church of England voted to restart the process to have women bishops, with a renewed sense of urgency?

'Not displeased' perhaps sums it up best. Certainly not delighted, or ecstatic, as some people seemed to think would be natural! This is only the beginning of another long process - at least two more years. And there is no guarantee it will be successful this time round, though initial indications are hopeful.

The most positive thing I take away from the debate was that nobody spoke against the principle of having women as bishops. That was a huge change from November, when what was meant to be a debate on specific legislation became open season on the ordination of women. Looking back, I think that was the most painful thing about listening to that debate.

But this time, although there were various amendments suggested to the motion to restart the process, all of them were related to the detail of the legislation. Nobody sought to amend, or even spoke against, the first clause, that women should be bishops, and urgently. And a surprisingly large number voted for it. Of course, people sometimes vote things through at an early stage that they intend to vote against at final approval unless they are able to 'improve them' later. But this time, there is surprisingly little room for 'improvements' at a later stage. The contents of the bishops' declaration is yet to be decided, and there is room for negotiation there. But most people voted for simple legislation, and to affirm that they wanted women bishops urgently - even if they would have preferred, and had earlier voted for, one of the amendments that would have altered that package.

It is of course a good thing that Synod has reaffirmed its desire to have women bishops, and as soon as is legislatively possible. And despite the sense of deja vu and weariness that many of us felt listening to the debate, it was more positive in tone than might have been expected. It was certainly more positive than November, but then it could hardly have been worse. There seemed to be a general sense that the facilitated conversations of Saturday had broadly been a good thing, and that the improved tone of debate reflected that.

Indeed, some people were so taken with the revolutionary idea of actually talking with each other that an amendment to ask for facilitated conversations to continue was easily carried. And the Bishop of Willesden made a popular suggestion that the next stage of the process should be conducted in a manner reminiscent of a student balloon debate. It remains to be seen whether the idea of putting a group of people in a room and asking them to come up with a solution works any better this time than last time...

If I understand him right, the idea is that this time, the solution should be unanimously agreed, and the participants should then each be prepared to 'sell' it to their friends and interest groups. I hope to be convinced, but I am rather wary of the continued fairy tale that a perfect solution exists out there and we will find it if we squeeze our eyes tight and wish harder. As Archbishop Justin said, sounding a note of caution in response to the slightly desperate acclamation his facilitation process received, there aren't 'magic processes' any more than there is a magic solution.

The full text of the motion that was passed can be found here, in the official press release.

A good summary of the debate, and a plea for the five principles and their implications to be widely discussed and owned, is on The Bishop of Sheffield's blog.


  1. The thing about the balloon debate is that there is generally a rule preventing self-sacrifice.

  2. Surprising and encouraging change of atmosphere at Synod, but I still fear it's a circle waiting to be squared, a balloon basket that won't contain everyone, or another version of the fairy tale! It makes you realise that women have a long, long way to go, even in Western Society, when you witness a broad church like the C of E having such persistent trouble in allowing a place for their presence in leadership. The Archbishop of Canterbury is right that we need something approaching a revolution on gender issues. Wider society has gradually reformed - I can just about remember the time when we still thought the church might take a lead. Can a reformed, catholic church now take seriously the fact that it is daily losing the confidence of many who read the gospels and see Jesus working to undermine the oppression of women by the religious and political leaders and because of custom and to include them in His inner circle?

  3. Thanks Miranda, a good summary and a realistic sense of caution :) - some of us will have to sit on the outside and watch, be interesting to see how it's facilitated. I swing between hopeful optimism and defensive cynicism.