Inside Parliament: Women priests praised for 'pastoral vision': Ordination legislation reaches final stages - Former archbishop supports Bill in Lords - Minister denies BR pension fund 'pillage'

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Lord Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, yesterday commended the ordination of women priests as a route back to a model of the priest as 'the Good Shepherd, rather than as the successful graduate of the management training school'.

Describing himself as 'one of the walking wounded' of the hostilities over women priests, Lord Runcie lent eloquent support to his successor, Dr George Carey, as peers debated the vexatious Church of England measure.

The Lords' debate marked the final stage of legislation which began its journey through the General Synod of the Church of England more than five years ago - 13 years after the Synod decided there were no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood. Last Friday the Commons approved the measure by 215 votes to 21.

Dr Carey said the legislation was about a simple theological truth - 'the inclusion of female as well as male in the priesthood as a visible sign of the inclusion of all humanity in the priestly ministry'.

The argument that only a male priest could adequately represent Christ in his person in the Eucharist was seriously flawed, he said. 'It is the humanity of Christ which is important, not His maleness.' While he acknowleged the ordination of women would create a further obstacle to unity with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, it would remove barriers in relations with churches of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions and the established church in Scotland.

But Dr Carey told peers that important though the legislation was, it had detracted from the task of making Christian life relevant for everyone and from the Church's ministry at all levels in society.

'The Church now longs to concentrate on promoting the Gospel of Christ to a society in great need. We have well over 1,000 women deacons who are offering their skills and gifts to the service of Christ and many of them see this legislation as offering the fulfilment of their ministry. I am confident they will enrich the priestly ministry of our Church.'

Despite Dr Carey's emphasis on the care for dissenting priests, Lord Holderness, a former Conservative minister, moved an amendment to delay the measure until still tighter safeguards were assured. Support for women's ordination was becoming the 'new orthodoxy', he said.

'I see many signs around me of deep distress, deep distrust, grave anxiety and an empty loneliness among those who feel they are being pushed by this measure into a church where many of the familiar landmarks are about to disappear.' Lord Holderness's amendment was rejected by 135 votes to 25 and the measure carried without a further division.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev David Hope, said the ban on women bishops did not add up theologically or practically, but they were sure to happen. Arguing against the measure in his maiden speech, the bishop said natural justice demanded equal opportunity for women and their 'gifts and graces' were needed in the Church's public ministry. But he went on: 'I am not yet convinced on the basis of scripture, of background, and of the tradition of the Church's life and ministry that the matter is yet fully resolved in favour of ordaining women and so I consider it remains a disputed question theologically.'

He said the provision enabling current bishops to make their diocese into a 'no-go area' for women priests was unworkable. London was one of six diocesan synods, out of 44, to vote against the measure. But Bishop Hope said he had received letters uttering 'dire threats' that his life would be made impossible if he dared to consider making the necessary declarations to bar women priests, and similarly impossible, from opponents, if he did.

Lord Runcie said he had started out as 'psychologically uncomfortable' about women priests, but now believed their ordination could help 'breathe spiritual life back into a church weighed down by bureaucracy'.

'In days when exclusively male leadership has been abandoned in other walks of life, it seems undeniable that the representative role of the priest may be weakened by a solely male priesthood.'

Lord Runcie said many women possessed the qualities sought in a priest. Their 'ability to bring men and women to God is tempered by the kind of tough gentleness which nourishes families and challenges the overbearing, neither authoritarian nor submissive'. Women's ordination might have the opposite effect to that forecast by opponents, he said. It could lead to 'more spiritual direction and perhaps less political advice' and to a return to 'a pastoral vision for the parish priest in place of the managerial business model'. These were things which for 'traditionalists' like himself were at the heart of the Church's needs for the future.

The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev David Lunn, said the root documents of their faith did not contain any statements that authorised the ordination of women. 'Might it just possibly be right that Our Lord, who was so dramatically revolutionary in his response to the world of His day, knew what he was about when he chose 12 men and gave a different ministry to women?'

Another opponent, the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Rev Eric Kemp, said it was 'not a happy time to be a bishop'. He had already lost two good young priests and knew of more who would leave.

The Commons, meanwhile, remained pre-occupied with more temporal matters such as taxation and rail privatisation. At Prime Minister's Question Time, John Major kept open the possibility of tax rises in the Budget and defended last night's guillotining of MPs' further consideration of the Railways Bill. Parliament had spent 186 hours debating the Bill, he said. 'Hardly a negation of democracy.'

As the once-threatened rebellion over British Rail's right to bid to run services evaporated, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, said the Government accepted BR should be eligible to be a franchisee, but subject to 'confinements' to encourage employee-management buy-outs and new entrants to the business.

Brian Wilson, a Labour transport spokesman, attacked Mr MacGregor for claiming BR managers supported privatisation when, he said, they did not. Alluding to Mr MacGregor's private pursuits, he added: 'The Secretary of State may be a magician but he is not entitled to set himself up as a ventriloquist as well.'