Chelmsford Diocesan Synod
Presidential Address 9 June 2012
As this is the last Synod of this triennium could I begin by thanking each and every one of you for the Saturdays you have given up to attend these vital meetings, and the Friday evenings you have spent reading many papers and reports. Synodical government is exacting and strenuous. It requires compromise and consensus. It honours the diversity of the church. It balances episcopal, clerical and lay voices. When decisions are made, there is harmony, and the new song of the gospel is heard afresh. So thank you for singing in the choir of the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod for the past three years. I look forward to welcoming some of you back in the autumn. We bid farewell and bon voyage to others.
Today I want to turn again to a decision where we have struggled to find the consensus and harmony which we believe reflects the mind of Christ, namely the legislation which comes before the General Synod of the Church of England next month proposing that the episcopate of our church be open to women as well as men.
And I am mindful that we continue this debate against a backdrop in our own country of recession, hardship and anxiety, and in the wider world financial crisis and the ever present dread of violence, injustice, hunger and environmental disaster. Some people understandably complain that the church should be talking about the ‘real issues’ of sharing the gospel and bringing God’s peace to the world, and can’t quite believe we are still talking about women’s ministry. However, not only do I want to devote this address to thinking about this legislation; I also want to contend that this is the real issue - or at least one of them! - and is very relevant for our proclamation of the gospel, for it touches upon our understanding of what it is to be made in the image of God, of the new humanity we have in Christ, of the gospel we share in the world, and, most relevant of all when we consider the conflicts and horrors of the world, how we live together with conscientious disagreement.
The legislation, as it was proposed, received overwhelming support amongst the dioceses, including our own. The February General Synod declined to make any amendments. That left the House of Bishops, which met last month, as the only body with power to do so. We gathered knowing that the legislation as it stood represented a middle road. On the one hand there are those who believe that anything other than a single clause measure without provision for those who disagree is compromise too far. On the other, those who do disagree simply point out that they are holding to the faith as it has always been, and they are not the ones changing. The actual legislation as it has evolved over many years and many debates offers a way through: men and women bishops on a completely equal footing; and at the same time a statutory Code of Practice that assures those who disagree that they are still loyal Anglicans and have a place within the church where they can flourish and where their conscientious objections are respected. However, because most of these assurances were in the Code – of which we have only seen a draft – and not in the measure, there was – is – a very real danger that the legislation would not gain the two thirds majority in each house of Synod that is necessary for it to go through. Many amendments were suggested to the House of Bishops to help on this point and there was much discussion. In the end all but two of the suggested amendments were rejected. The others seemed to us to stray too far from the carefully navigated middle way. However one of the amendments seems to me be extremely helpful. It simply says that where a male bishop exercises episcopal ministry in a diocese by way of delegation and in accordance with arrangements contained in a scheme, that is the Code of Practice that will be drawn up and which we will all be required to abide by, “the legal authority which he has by virtue of such delegation does not affect, and is distinct from, the authority to exercise the functions of the office of bishop which that bishop has by virtue of his holy orders”. It goes on: “Any such delegation shall not be taken as divesting the bishop of the diocese of any of his or her authority or functions.”
By clarifying the nature of the derived episcopal authority from ordination as distinct, though, of course related to, the delegated episcopal authority received from the bishop in whose diocese one ministers, it makes it easier for those who in conscience will not be able to accept the sacramental or teaching ministry of a woman bishop – the derived ministry - to still receive the delegated ministry of a male bishop appointed by her.
Now this distinction between delegated and derived authority is nothing new. It is how all clergy minister. We have the authority we derive from our ordination: we receive letters of orders showing that we are deacons, priests or bishops in the Church of God. We have the delegated authority of our license: we are restricted and permitted to exercise our ministry in the Church of England in a particular locality.
Because this license is given by the Bishop there was a danger that without this clarification some may confuse derived and delegated authority and feel that you could not accept one without the other. In the same way that in this diocese the Archdeacon of Colchester’s legitimate authority is recognised and accepted in her role as Archdeacon, even by those parishes who would not feel able to recognise her derived authority as a priest, so if the legislation is passed a future Bishop of Chelmsford, who happens to be a woman, will be able to delegate authority to a male bishop who can serve those parishes who will not be able to receive and accept her derived authority as priest and bishop. This, I believe answers the concern that some Anglo-Catholics have had over the issue of sacramental assurance. Provided there are male bishops to whom such authority can be delegated, so the delegation itself should not compromise the derived authority of the bishop who ministers. Nor is the authority of the diocesan bishop - man or woman – in any way compromised or limited. I know this theological clarification may be less helpful for some conservative evangelicals whose concern is not so much sacramental assurance but issues of male headship. However, having recently read Lorna Ashworth’s small booklet, Beyond Equal Rights and the Latimer Trust's more substantial book of essays, The Church, Women Bishops and Provision, I am more confident that the issue of authority to teach and preach is at the heart of this concern, and that there are only a very few who would hold to the stricter interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14 saying that women should remain silent in church and have no public role whatsoever. In other words, if the authority to teach and preach also comes from the derived authority given at ordination then I am hopeful that conservative evangelicals can also see that this amended legislation can give them the assurance that they can in conscience also work within the framework of the delegated authority that would come from a woman diocesan bishop. I might also point out that it is already the case that every clergyperson in the Church of England swears an oath of allegiance to the Crown, and therefore, to some extent, already accepts the legal jurisdiction of somebody authorised by law to hold a particular legal position in the church, male or female, lay or ordained. I am therefore hopeful that even those who find some of this most difficult might conclude that, when the time comes, they will be able to work and minister in a diocese where the duly authorised diocesan bishop is a woman; and that they will do this knowing that there was a bishop whose derived authority they could acknowledge, for under the code of practice there would have to be a different bishop to exercise certain sacramental or episcopal functions for those congregations who disputed these aspects of the diocesan bishop’s legitimacy. They could therefore swear canonical obedience to a woman diocesan bishop, acknowledging this person’s responsibility for the licensing of clergy and for allowing them to exercise their ministry within the structures of the Church of England ‘in all things lawful’.
Separating these two aspects of ministry is less than desirable. But it is a way forward. This amendment does not create the distinction. But it does clarify it; and by putting it into the measure itself gives greater assurance to those who, whatever the majority of us may think, are in danger of being excluded from the broad church we have always been. I want them to know they have been listened to and to know that I personally care very deeply about holding us together within the one church.
However, there was also a second amendment. And it is this one that has caused the most consternation. Where the measure had allowed for parishes to request the provision of a ‘male bishop’ the amendment says a male bishop whose views are “consistent with the theological convictions (of the parish) as to the consecration or ordination of women”.
Now those who have been most concerned about the legislation have consistently argued that maleness, in itself, is not enough; what is also required is assurance about where that person derives his orders. I believe that the clarification referred to above, and the promise that such bishops will continue to be available, answers this point. By introducing the additional requirement of theological conviction others are now saying that we have gone beyond a refining of what was already there and introduced substantial change to the measure, giving privilege in law to undefined theological positions, and giving congregations an outsized amount of control over the characteristics of their bishop: the male bishop referred to is no longer just someone whose derived orders are acceptable, but also someone whose views and theological convictions are the same as the requesting parish. Indeed, there are many women who are now saying that they cannot vote for this legislation. And although the amendment doesn’t allow for theological conviction to be a criterion except on this one issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, some are wondering whether having once conceded that a parish can request episcopal ministry on the grounds of one issue, what will be next? One website says “We do not think that the House of Bishops should be asking the Church of England to accept and live with a Measure that propagates ambivalence about women and would be divisive for generations to come”. We need to listen very carefully to these views and concerns.
Some bishops have responded by saying that all we have done is take what was in the proposed Code of Practice and put it into the measure itself. This is true. But by making it part of the legislation one departs almost completely from the long held Christian hope that we can actually trust each other on these sorts of things; and the equally important Christian doctrine, that even when we fail – and of course there are numerous examples of bishops failing to be trustworthy – we can forgive and make things new. Plus it is in danger of confusing the very matter that the previous amendment clarifies. What matters is not your view on this subject, but your orders.
So now to the crux of the matter. Should we still support this legislation? This diocese has 14 members of General Synod. From traditional Anglo-Catholic to conservative evangelical (and pretty much everything in between), we represent the spectrum of views on this and many other issues. When electing us, the diocese did a good job of making sure every voice was heard. This isn’t the same in other dioceses. It gives us strength.
I believe these amendments will give succour to those who were beginning to feel more and more marginalised. I hope that some who were thinking of voting against the measure will now vote in favour, or at least decide to abstain. At the same time the second amendment I have spoken about has hurt and confused a large number of people, and especially many women priests. I want them to know that I understand their anxiety. Nevertheless, I also want all of you to know that despite my own misgivings I will still be voting for the legislation. I will not be asking for it to be returned to the dioceses and looked at again. I don’t want to exclude those who disagree with me. Neither do I want to create two classes of bishop, with women consigned to the second category. But provided we all agree to adhere to the line, that over and above this issue of women’s ordination, theological conviction over matters where we have already agreed to disagree, is not of itself a reason to request another bishop; and remembering that in another part of the measure it is clearly stated that “delegation shall not be taken as divesting the bishop of the diocese of any of his or her authority or functions” then I believe this legislation, as amended, can work. How this happens will be the business of the Code of Practice. But there is now enough in the measure itself to enable objectors to the ordination of women to know that they have the place they deserve; and enough assurances that authority is still delegated, and not transferred, to mean, even though male bishops ‘appointed following a Letter of Request’ as the measure requires, will be selected on the grounds of their convictions and not just their orders, that, despite understandable concerns, those who have always fought for and supported this development in our ministry can continue to do so. In the end we will all have to make our individual decisions. But we must make them knowing that we are voting for the whole church and not just our part of it.
I have always believed this is of God. But I have also believed that we must find a way of doing it that honours and acknowledges our disagreements. Despite my concerns, I believe we are there. I therefore also believe it would be a tragedy for our church and our nation if the legislation fell at this point. It is a compromise. But the Church of England has made compromises before and I believe this one will not only secure us an equality of ministry between men and women, it will also mean that we can move on from debating the subject – and goodness knows we have consumed a lot of energy doing that in recent years – to the more interesting and fruitful business of living it out faithfully, that is demonstrating to the world the new hope that we have in Jesus Christ. The mere fact that we are arguing over the details of the legislation rather than the substance of the theological issues, shows how far we have come. Of course some still have serious theological concerns; but we are on the edge of finding a way of living together with these. Therefore, when the legislation is passed, we will move into a new era. It will still be an era of reception because there are so many churches and Christians around the world who do not share our view on this. But, crucially, our witness will no longer be to each other, it will be to this wider world. We will show other churches what it is to be a faithful, biblical, reformed and Catholic Church with men and women bishops; we will show our own communities a clearer demonstration of that new humanity where disagreement does not lead to exclusion and where men and women are one in Christ. What we will ask of each other is this: can you live with, respect and honour the faith and integrity of the person with whom you disagree on this issue, knowing that your own position is likewise respected? If the answer to this is yes, and if you believe that this legislation gives us such provision, then you must vote for the legislation, even if inside you wish it were worded slightly differently. If the answer is no, then we must either go back to the drawing board - and that will take at least another five years ; or, if you believe it can only ever be no, then sadly it may mean a few more people leaving the Church of England. I hope to God this doesn’t happen. I am for saying yes.
So please pray for all those attending the General Synod in July, and especially for those from this diocese. Pray for the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit that we may know the mind of Christ, and, if it is his will, say yes to women bishops in the way this legislation proposes.