Saturday, 17 November 2012

Did The Church of England Approve Women Bishops In The 1970s?

This follows on from a Twitter debate with someone who maintains that the Church of England General Synod agreed the theology on whether women could be consecrated to the episcopate 40 years ago. This was then clarified to 1975 and 1978.

So, is this the case? Is Tuesday's vote on the draft Women Bishops Measure no more than a tidying-up vote? When I argued for a switch to the Alternative Vote system for electing the House of Commons, and relied on the two times (1918 and 1931) when the House of Commons backed it, or waiting for the preamble of the Parliament Act 1911 to take effect- well, is this the same thing? Is it a case of just as the House of Commons voted for constitutional reform that never took place, the General Synod voted for ecclesiastical reform that never took place?

Well, frankly, no.

1975 was a Synod motion agreeing "this Synod considers that there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood". Nothing about bishops. And, at one level, there is nothing wrong about authorising women to preside at the Lord's Supper- there is no magic in the communion service. We don't use the 1662 Book of Common Spells. The same effect happens whether a man or woman says the words.

And let's face it, a lot of the debate over ordaining women to the presbyterate boiled down to the presiding-at-the-Lord's-Supper issue.

The Synod can change its mind though, can't it? Is it possible that in November 1992 it took a step back from its 1975 position?

The Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 passed by the Synod and by Parliament has Resolutions A and B. The first allows a Parochial Church Council (PCC) to decide that a woman cannot exercise presbyterial functions (primarily certain parts of the celebration of the Lord's Supper) and the second prevents a woman from serving as the church leader.

There are the two basic objections to women serving as presbyters. One- more Catholic- concerns the celebration of the Lord's Supper, while the other- more evangelical- concerns headship. And people who take one stance don't necessarily take the other.

For example, when I lived in Leicester I was on an assertiveness course. The lady who ran it once mentioned her daughter being a deacon-in-charge of an Anglican church and had to rely on retired male presbyters to conduct the Lord's Supper.

And conversely, there are Anglicans who feel that there is nothing wrong with a woman presiding at the Lord's Supper but that it's wrong for a woman to be the actual leader of a church.

But surely by allowing a parish opt-out, the Synod was saying that there could be "fundamental objections" to women being ordained to the priesthood. In addition, alongside the Measure, the Synod passed the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 which introduced Resolution C, authorising the Provincial Episcopal Visitors (often called the "flying bishops").

There is one thing to note about the Resolutions- they are not "sunset clauses". There was nothing in them to say they were designed to give Anglicans who opposed the ordination of women a little bit of breathing space as they found another denomination to worship in.

Another thing to note about 1992/93 is that I remember a lot of emphasis on the great divide being presbyterate/epispocate not diaconate/presbyterate. That basically, a presbyter is really the same as a deacon but just does a bit more (the "just four paragraphs" argument, which interestingly focusses on the celebration of the Lord's Supper as the be-all-and-end-all of presbyterial ministry), so nothing in the Measure would lead to women actually becoming bishops.

At one Anglican church I know there was a (now moved to the USA) presbyter who, whenever there was a service on St Stephen's Day, wear his stole over his left shoulder (deacon-style) rather than over both shoulders (priest-style) to emphasise that he was still a deacon.

It is clear from the New Testament that the two orders of ministry are the diaconate ("deacons") and presbyterate ("priests" and "bishops").

That's 1975. What about 1978? Did the Synod agree a theology of women bishops there?

There was a motion asking "the Standing Committee to prepare and bring forward legislation to remove the barriers to the ordination of women to the priesthood and their consecration to the episcopate".

Case settled? Clear will of the Synod?

Well, it has to be passed by all 3 Houses- Laity, Clergy and Bishops. As it fell in the House of Clergy, it cannot be considered the will of the Synod.

In 2000, the Synod passed a motion asking "the House of Bishops to initiate further theological study on the episcopate, focusing on the issues that need to be addressed in preparation for the debate on women in the episcopate in the Church of England" which led to a Commission led by Michael Nazir-Ali, then the Bishop of Rochester, which reported in 2004.

Now, wait a minute. Surely if the Synod agreed the theology in the 1970s, then why set up the Rochester Commission? And why does the report only briefly touch on 1975 and 1978?

On Tuesday there will be various arguments put for and against. But let's not have this "The Synod agreed it in the 1970s" put forward when, despite what someone in the Yes 2 Women Bishops movement is saying, it isn't the case.

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