The compromise scheme for 'episcopal visitors' - quickly nicknamed 'low- flying bishops' - is a defeat for traditionalists demanding an alternative church. Although the scheme was unanimously approved by the bishops of the Church of England, it is likely that the Anglo-Catholic clergy will reject it.
The move marks a last-ditch attempt to persuade opponents and supporters of women priests that they can co-exist. A paper presented to the four-day House of Bishops meeting in Manchester by seven traditionalist bishops had demanded that the new 'low-flying bishops' be 'permanent in the same way as any other bishop is', and given their own seats on General Synod. These considerations do not appear in the final, unanimous statement, which also pledged that there would be no discrimination against opponents of women priests.
Dr Carey told a news conference that the bishops had unanimously rejected the idea of 'a church within a church'. He said: 'We want to maintain the unity of the Church of England.'
Although Dr Carey told the news conference that 'we can't be confident that this will stem defection to other churches', the bishops appeared to believe that they had produced a workable compromise. The 10 diocesan bishops opposed to women's ordination issued a statement describing the proposal as a 'realistic framework for enabling those opposed to the ordination of women to remain within the Church of England'.
Discussions will be held with clergy and laity on how the proposals may be implemented in each diocese. Under the agreed arrangements, the new 'low-flying bishops', who will range over the provinces of Canterbury and York, can only operate with the co-operation of diocesan bishops. This led Fr Peter Geldard, a leading opponent of women priests, to say: 'The episcopal visitors are purely grace-and-favour. They have no legal right to go in at all. There will be a large section of priests and laity who can't accept this and will go.'
The scheme was also denounced by Christina Rees, of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, who said that the proposed compromise was 'beginning to institutionalise division. If this goes on for the next few years it is against the whole spirit of the legislation.'
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, said that the existence of low-flying bishops 'will provide opponents with an assurance of continuity which is not dependent on goodwill'. But he also stressed that though a flying bishop could ordain and confirm in a pro-women diocese, this could only be with the agreement of the diocesan bishop.
Many opponents of women priests believe that a bishop who ordains women will be tainted so that any men he ordains thereafter are not real priests either. Dr Habgood said this was unacceptable. But, in answer to a question, he agreed that the House of Bishops might make provision for those priests who do believe in episcopal tainting.Reuse content