Proposed legislation on women bishops falls short

October 13, 2009


- Reverend Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is Chaplain and Solway Fellow of University College, Durham. The opinions expressed are her own. -

A controversial decision by a committee drawing up legislation to allow women bishops has been met with criticism from women who are seeking equal representation at the highest levels in the Church of England.

Women have been ordained as priests in the Church of England since 1994, but cannot currently become bishops.

Since 2006, the Church of England has been preparing draft legislation to remove the legal obstacles to women bishops. In 2008, the General Synod voted to reject a range of options which set up separate structures within the church for those who could not accept women’s ordination, and instead asked the  Revision Committee to draw up simple legislation without discrimination, alongside a separate code of practice to “protect” those who objected to women’s ministry.

But last Thursday, the Revision Committee issued a statement saying that they had decided to reject this route. Instead, they propose to prepare legislation which would  enforce the transfer of powers from the diocesan bishop to a special anti-woman bishop, if the diocesan bishop were either a woman, or a man who agreed with the ordination of women.

I am deeply concerned about this decision. In the first place, the remit of the revision committee based on the synod debates last year was to prepare simple legislation with a code of practice, and I fail to see any justification for the revision committee taking it upon themselves to reject the will of synod in this way. I, along with many of my colleagues on Synod, feel betrayed by this disregard for the hard work and serious thought which was put in by us all in that debate.

Apart from the issue of process, there are very serious concerns about the substance of the proposed way forward. To set up legislation in which powers are transferred to bishops selected purely on the basis of their views on the ordination of women is invidious and unsustainable.

Were such legislation to be prepared, the Church of England would then be in the position of asking Parliament to pass primary legislation which was inherently discriminatory, which would be to put both them and us in an invidious position. And for members of Synod, the vast majority of members of the Church of England generally, and especially for ordained women, such legislation would be an affront, since it returns to the idea of having male and female bishops who are not bishops on equal terms.

At the base of the desire for such discrimination is the discredited and discreditable idea that women are inherently less in the image of God than men, and the Church of England must stand firm against any such suggestion.

The fact that some members of our church believe wholeheartedly that women cannot be ordained does not make them right in that belief. And it does not mean that as a church we should undermine the very thing we are legislating for by framing the legislation in such a way as to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the new women bishops and to make the remit of their ministry less comprehensive than that of their male colleagues.

I have heard it said in recent days that this proposal for the new legislation is not discriminatory because men who agreed with women’s ordination would also be affected by the transfer of powers. This is such a disingenuous argument that I am astounded it can be made with a straight face.

It is of course discriminatory on grounds of gender to discriminate between individuals either on their own gender or on their views about gender. Furthermore, the precedent of allowing individuals or churches to pick and choose their bishop based on their theological opinions is an extremely dangerous one.

It goes against the fundamental principle, expressed in the 39 Articles, that the worthiness of the minister does not affect the validity of their ministry, and it opens the door wide to a complete fragmentation of the church, at a time when unity and division are real and urgent questions not just for us in the Church of England but for the whole Anglican communion.

In this context, this proposal is to make the question of gender the key defining question for the Church of England. Theological opinion on the gender of ordained ministers would be enshrined in our legislation as the one opinion the holding of which is legally sufficient to render a bishop unacceptable to certain parishes, and for which an alternative bishop would be officially provided. Is this really the intention of the revision committee?


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