Women bishops at last? Law debated by Church of England Synod

Members of the General Synod agree to begin next stage on proposals

A second attempt by the Church of England to pass a measure that would permit women priests to become bishops got off to a good start at the summer Synod sitting today in York. An enabling resolution gained the backing of 319 votes compared with 84 votes cast against.

In November last year, Synod had failed to provide the required majorities. This resulted in widespread public condemnation with Parliament showing its displeasure. The Church appeared out of touch with contemporary society.

Individual members of Synod who had voted against women bishops found themselves criticised when they returned home. Many women clergy suddenly wondered whether they were as welcome in the Church as they had come to believe they were. Church supporters feared that a fatal mistake had been made.

The Bishops held a breast-beating meeting in December. It was agreed to try again. The bishops resolved that the new proposals must be simple, must treat dissenters with respect, must have a reasonable prospect of gaining assent and must "enable the Church of England to resolve this unfinished business through its own processes as a matter of great urgency". In others words, it didn't want Parliament to do the job for it.

A working group comprising all shades of opinion was set up and duly reported to the Bishops in May. One key comment was that the right balance between law and freedom had to be found so that trust can flourish.

The motion that was passed today got the main point up front - a commitment to admit women to the ranks of bishops 'as a matter of urgency'. But, and here lies a danger for the future progress of the legislation, the new measure provides no legally enforceable protections for those who, on theological grounds, are unable to accept the ministry of women bishops. Instead dissidents would have to rely upon a declaration of intent by the House of Bishops or a new Act of Synod that would not have the force of the law of the land.

Now the Church of England is not a particularly trusting organisation. As the Archbishop, Justin Welby, told Synod on Saturday, "What is clear to all of us is that there exists - and let's be honest about it - a very significant absence of trust between different groups." A speaker in today's debate agreed: 'The sad reality is that there is no trust' Yet at the same time, the Church is constantly proclaiming, in a phrase that has entered the language, that it is a 'broad church', one that freely tolerates different opinions so that the meaning of Anglicanism can be stretched quite widely.

How is this contradiction to be resolved? That was the true subject matter of today's debate. The majority, led by the new Archbishop, want to give trust a chance to develop by not being too legalistic. In this way a much needed change in culture, one that is more respectful of difference, could take hold. Others noted correctly that uniquely among Christian churches in England, the Church of England is 'by law established'. The Queen is its Supreme Governor, its bishops sit in the House of Lords and the measures passed by Synod must finally be approved by Parliament. And within a framework of legal constraint, as some members argued, trust can flourish.

Now today's decision went no further than instructing the Church authorities to start the work of drafting the new legislation and arranging for it to be given a sort of 'first reading' at the synod due to take place in November. So is a difficult journey begins. Success is not guaranteed.

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