On 20th December the House of Bishops published a summary of the decisions taken at its meeting in Lambeth Palace on 10-11th December. Whilst under normal circumstances a report of their decisions would not be of interest to those outside the Church of England, in view of two issues covered by the summary – Synod’s vote on women in the episcopate and issues surrounding human sexuality – it is likely that the summary will be received with greater attention by the media. To those following these events there would be few surprises; but the statement is nevertheless useful in providing an up-to-date picture of the current situation.
Ordination of women to the episcopate
The Bishops’ summary noted that the House “recognised and felt the profound and widespread sense of anger, grief and disappointment experienced by so many in the Church of England and beyond” and “considered that the present situation was unsustainable for all, whatever their convictions”. It acknowledged that the Church of England now had to resolve the issue through its own processes as a matter of great urgency.
- the establishment a working group before Christmas for the preparation of new legislative proposals;
- an event early in 2013 at which the bishops will share with a larger number of lay and ordained women – in the context of prayer and reflection – questions about the culture of the House’s processes and discussions, and how women might more regularly contribute;
- during the week of 4th February, discussions with a wide range of people of a variety of views, facilitated by the working group;
- an additional meeting of the House of Bishops in February immediately after those discussions; agreement at its May meeting the elements of a new legislative package to come to General Synod in July.
On 19th December, the Archbishops announced the composition of the working group on new legislative proposals on women bishops, with tricameral General Synod representation together with a senior member of clergy who is no longer on the Synod. The group has been tasked to arrange facilitated discussions in February with a wide range of people of a variety of views following two initial meetings in January. When the draft legislation is ready for introduction to the Synod the membership of a new Steering Committee will be decided. This will comprise members of Synod supportive of the legislative proposal and have the responsibility for the management of the legislation through Synod.
The explanatory memorandum “Women in the Episcopate – Synodical Process: A summary of the legislative steps” prepared by the Secretary General to the General Synod for parliamentarians is now generally available. It concludes
“It would, therefore, be possible for legislation introduced in 2013 to complete all its stages in the lifetime of this Synod, which ends in July 2015. Pending the discussions with all interested parties in the early months of 2013 it is too soon, however, to offer a confident prediction of what the timescale will be given the imperative need to avoid a second failure”.
The House of Bishops is currently considering two aspects of human sexuality: one group (the membership of which was announced on 1st December 2011) is providing advice on the bishops’ review of the 2005 civil partnership statement and another has been set up to advise the HoB on the more general issues relating to human sexuality. The membership of the latter group was announced on 5th January 2012. With regard to the latter, the House considered an interim report from the group; but pending the conclusion of its work in 2013, (ie the preparation of a consultation document) announced its intention not to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships. However, it confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.
Doctrine of Marriage
The House was updated on a draft document in preparation from the Faith and Order Commission of the General Synod, (FAOC), in relation to the doctrine of marriage. The House agreed that, once further revisions had been made, it could be issued with the agreement of the Standing Committee as a Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) document and commended for study.
The General Synod’s rejection of the proposed legislation to permit the ordination of women to the episcopate precipitated action by the House of Bishops to facilitate a reconsideration of the matter which would better reflect the wishes of the majority of the dioceses. Unlike other “knee-jerk” reactions, the bishops’ plan of action provides a timetable of actions directed at achieving a stated objective – the presentation of a new legislative package to the meeting of General Synod in July 2013. Commitment to this timetable was in place prior to the debate by backbench MPs on 12th December, and whilst the desire to hold such a debate is understandable, Helen Goodman’s Early Day Motion
“[t]hat this House regrets the decision not to go ahead now with the consecration of women bishops by the Church of England Synod; and urges the Church to bring forward legislation again at an early date”
tabled on the same day as the backbench debate seems a trifle otiose.
To date, the Bristol Diocesan Synod’s vote of no confidence the General Synod has not been followed by others. The Church has published the papers for the meeting of the House of Laity to here, here, and here on Canon Stephen Barney’s motion of no confidence in its Chair, Dr Philip Giddings.
In contrast to the Bishops’ prompt action in this area, although the Church has been proactive in its involvement with government in the development of same-sex marriage, consideration of its underlying position on human sexuality and the doctrine of marriage appears to be progressing at a more leisurely pace.