Saturday, 26 October 2013

Women Bishops: Take Two...

Proposals for new legislation to enable women to be bishops, have just been published. They can be found here, on the Church of England website.

Overall reaction

Overall, I welcome this report and would support this legislation. It seems to me to provide a wise balance of simple legislation and guiding principles, giving effect to the wishes of General Synod as expressed in July.

There are points on which I have some serious reservations, but I can of course see that the same could be said by everybody in this process, and that some mutual compromise is necessary. For me personally, the biggest concession demanded by this legislation is the continued ordination of candidates who are against the ordination of women.

I welcome, however, the structure of the new proposals, with their four inter-dependent elements which need to be read as a whole.

Guide to the new proposals

The new package is designed to be seen and understood as a whole. Each element needs to be read and interpreted in the light of each other element.

There are four parts to this new package:

1. The Measure.
This is the bit that will become law, and that will need to be passed by Parliament as well as by General Synod. It is much simpler than before, as requested by General Synod in July. It basically says men and women can both be bishops, end of. The only other substantial provision is a single amendment to the Equality Act, designed to prevent legal challenges to this package.

2. The Amending Canon. 
This changes the internal rules of the Church of England. The  main point here is that both for priests and bishops, the rules will simply say men and women can be ordained and consecrated, without having separate provision for the ordination of women . A new Canon will also mandate the grievance procedure (see 4 in this list).

3. The House of Bishops' Declaration. 
This is the heart of the package for those who disagree with the ordination of women. All arrangements for dealing with the variety of opinion that exists are in this Declaration, which would have similar force to the current Act of Synod. It includes the provision that, once the Bishops have agreed this text, it can only be changed by a 2/3 majority of each House of General Synod.

4. The Grievance Procedure.
The newest element of the proposals, this will be an ombudsman-style process, and it will be made compulsory by being included in Canon Law. This means all clergy, including bishops, will have to comply with it. It exists primarily to provide a way for PCCs who don't think their theological convictions have been handled adequately to complain, but the stated aim is not so much to deal with such complaints, but to prevent them arising in the first place by providing an independent and national level of scrutiny over how (for example) bishops go about providing male bishops for petitioning parishes. It doesn't include penalties, but it seems likely that failure to comply with its recommendations would be grounds for a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure.

What now?

So, this November, Synod will be voting on whether
1) to give First Approval to the Measure and Canon and
2) to ask the Bishops to agree texts for the Declaration and Grievance Procedure.

If all goes to plan, the February 2014 Synod will then hold the Revision Stage of the legislation (the Measure), and will have the full set of documents agreed.
At the end of the February Synod, they will vote on sending the whole package to the dioceses again. The dioceses will only be voting on the Measure, but will be able to see the whole package so they aren't 'signing a blank cheque'.

This Reference to the Dioceses stage is expected to be fast-tracked, and should be back with General Synod by July or November 2014.

In theory, then, Final Approval could be given in 2014, or in Feb 2015.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Typical women: it just goes to show...

A twitter conversation yesterday started like this:

@SallyHitchiner: Antje Jackelen elected Sweden's first woman archbishop - Come on England: the Swedes are decades ahead again!

@PeterOuld: @SallyHitchiner Are you not slightly concerned she denies parts of the Creed? Is that OK because she's XX?

...... And a few tweets later:

@PeterOuld: @SallyHitchiner @MirandaTHolmes You're celebrating an XX archbish who won't affirm Creeds. This does CofE pro XX bish position no favours.

@PeterOuld: @SallyHitchiner @MirandaTHolmes It plays very nicely into the hands of those who think we are wrong for wanting women bishops.

Typical women, eh? When one of them says something we disagree with, it just goes to show that women shouldn't be allowed a platform or voice. See, we told you they couldn't be trusted with it. Leave this to the chaps, girls.

This is why gender is still an issue, even where it isn't meant to be an issue anymore. If a man screws up, he is an individual who is bad at his job. If a woman screws up, it seems to show that women shouldn't do that job.

Please note that I am not discussing the new Archbishop of Sweden elect's views here, or her suitability or otherwise for the post. I know nothing about her except what has been written in a couple of English language reports of her appointment, and I would not presume to criticise another church's choice of leader on such flimsy evidence.

My beef is more straightforward. Why on earth does the appointment of a female archbishop who has views which may be controversial, 'play very nicely into the hands of those who think we are wrong for wanting women bishops'? Does her gender determine her theology? Do all women think the same?

Lets take a male example for comparison. How about David Jenkins, a previous Bishop of Durham? He was notoriously controversial in his theological views. Partly this was because he was genuinely questioning and de-mythologising, partly because the complexity of his views were often misquoted and misunderstood. (The Resurrection, for example, he said was 'not just a conjuring trick with bones', but somehow the 'not' seemed to get lost along the way.) Many people said he shouldn't be a bishop, even suggested that God had struck York Minster with lightening in retaliation for his consecration there a few days earlier. But no one, as far as I am aware, suggested that it just went to show that men shouldn't be bishops.

Or how about Richard Holloway, a previous Bishop of Edinburgh? I heard him speak very movingly at the Hexham Book Festival last year, about his new book 'Leaving Alexandria'. In the questions afterwards, he thought aloud about resigning from his see, saying that he had done so because he came to think that those who said he shouldn't be a bishop due to his unorthodox views were probably right. But again, I have never heard anyone suggest that his radical take on Christianity casts doubt on men's suitability for the episcopate.

I am an academic by training, so in fairness, I shall acknowledge that there is some research to suggest that, on average and broadly speaking, female clergy tend to be more theologically liberal than male clergy. Personally, I think this is a good thing and am proud to be one of them!

But it is nonsensical to suggest that all women think the same, or that the fact that some of us are more liberal than the average clergyman means that women shouldn't be ordained, or become bishops. Even if you genuinely think that only conservative thinkers with no capacity or inclination to question the received wisdom should be ordained, to argue that since the average woman is more 'liberal' than the average man, no woman should be ordained would be specious nonsense.

We will know we have achieved genuine gender equality when a woman can mess up, or be controversial, or do something unpopular, and be criticised for her actions rather than as a representative of her sex.