Women bishops and the recognition of Orders

Recent decisions of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales and the Bishops of the Church of Ireland have given added impetus to the wider debate about women in episcopacy.

Will Adam, editor of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal and Vicar of St Paul’s, Winchmore Hill in the Diocese of London, has kindly contributed the following guest post.

The last couple of weeks have seen two landmark decisions in the Anglican churches of the British Isles. On 12 September the Governing Body of the Church in Wales voted in favour of legislation to permit the ordination of women as bishops. On 20 September it was announced that on the previous day the Revd Pat Storey had been elected as Bishop of Meath and Kildare.

This is bound to bring up again the question of the recognition in a Church which does not permit the ordination of women as bishop of episcopal acts performed by a bishop who is a woman.

The first occasion on which this topic reared its head in the Church of England was at the time of the consecration of the first Anglican woman bishop in the Episcopal Church of the USA in 1989. At this point women had not been ordained priest in the churches of the British Isles. In advance of this event the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement (on behalf of himself and Archbishop Habgood of York) in which he stated that in the exercise of their powers under the Overseas and Other Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure 1967 they would not issue permission to minister in the Church of England to priests or deacons ordained by a women bishop overseas.

In 2004 the Legal Advisory Commission of the Church of England issued an Opinion[1] prompted by a request from the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Women in the Episcopate. This detailed opinion concluded inter alia that:

  1. The 1967 Measure refers to the recognition, or otherwise, of orders of churches rather than orders conferred by individual bishops;
  2. The validity of ordinations carried out in a church in communion with the Church of England is a matter for the canon law of that church and is assumed by the 1967 Measure;
  3. There are public policy reasons why, whilst it is not possible for women to become bishops in the Church of England, the Archbishops may not permit (under s 4 of the 1967 Measure) overseas bishops who are women to perform episcopal functions (confirmation or ordination) in England;
  4. Whilst under s 5 of the Episcopal Church (Scotland) Act 1864 there is a statutory power for a bishop to refuse (without giving reason) to license or institute a priest or deacon ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church, such limitations do not apply to those ordained in the Church of Ireland or Church in Wales.

Details of individual applications and grants of permission under the 1967 Measure are not made public. It is not clear, therefore, whether, since 2004, the Archbishops have permitted priests (male or female) ordained overseas by female Anglican bishops to minister in the Church of England. The Opinion reports that women bishops attending the Lambeth Conference 1998 were asked by Archbishop Carey not to perform episcopal functions whilst in England and anecdotal evidence suggests that this remains the practice for visiting women bishops.

However, the consecration of a woman as a bishop in the Church of Ireland changes the situation. Deacons, priests and bishops of the Church of Ireland, Church in Wales and Scottish Episcopal Church are not considered as “overseas” clergy by the law applying to the Church of England. This is significant, because the permission of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York is not required for such ministers to be invited to exercise the ministry of their orders in England.

Whilst there may be public policy reasons why the bishops of the Church of England may decide not to delegate any of their episcopal functions to a woman bishop from the Church of Ireland it is difficult to see how they could prevent those deacons and priests ordained by her from ministering in their dioceses. S 1 of the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 1995 states that clergy of the Church of Ireland may be invited to minister in parishes ‘subject to the same conditions as would be applicable to them if they had been admitted to Holy Orders by the bishop of a diocese in the Church of England.’ At present there is no legislation that imposes a condition such that one ordained by a female bishop is unable to be so invited.

When legislation is framed to permit the ordination of women bishops in England it may well be accompanied by provisions partially to restrict their ministry and that of those ordained by them. However, in the meantime, the legislative framework exists to permit ministry, on a temporary or permanent basis, of those ordained by a women bishop in Ireland on the same basis as all ministers ordained in the Church of England.



[1] Legal Opinions Concerning the Church of England (8th Edition, London, 2007), pp 71-84.

7 thoughts on “Women bishops and the recognition of Orders

  1. Scripture is full of women who had significant ministry and I know of no scriptures that prohibit women’s involvement. People often quote Paul’s letters but to interpret them in that way is to forget his words were intended for a particular time and situation.

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  3. “It is not clear, therefore, whether, since 2004, the Archbishops have permitted priests (male or female) ordained overseas by female Anglican bishops to minister in the Church of England.”

    Should be possible to ask a question at General Synod in November designed precisely to elicit the numbers of applications, and whether that reason figures in the rejections.

  4. This article raises an interesting conflict for me as a lawyer on the one hand and a practising Christian on the other (and as a woman who wholeheartedly accepts the authority of women priests). I am not versed in this area of law and I am not a theologian, so I would be interested in the views of those who are either of those things (or both!).

    Excuse my clumsy terminology, but I can understand the legalistic argument that if somebody whose authority is not recognised in this jurisdiction (the woman bishop in Ireland) is bestowing authority on another (the ordinand), the bestowal of that authority would be open to question. The difficulty I have is from a faith perspective – ordination is a sacrament. As a sacrament, it involves the transforming presence of God – Almighty God whose actions and presence are certainly not constrained by due legal process.

    This argument presents a slippery slope, I realise, but isn’t there any way of somehow generally and unequivocally “ratifying” the ordination of all the priests whose ordinations are in question, because they were carried out by a woman bishop? Especially if the “order for ratification” (again, excuse my terminology) comes from senior male bishops in the C of E? Perhaps I am, in fact, making the same point as Simon has in his post above.

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