Church of England nears consensus on women bishops

The Church of England’s governing body took the middle ground on women bishops today as it approved draft legislation seeking to safeguard the equal status of women in the episcopate whilst ensuring provision for opponents.

After an exhausting three-hour debate, General Synod voted in favour of draft legislation that provides alternative oversight by a male bishop for traditionalist parishes that seek it, on the understanding that their intervention is at the discretion of the female diocesan bishop.

The Manchester motion proposing ‘co-ordinate’ jurisdiction between the female and male bishop was substantially amended to allow the House of Bishops to make some amendments to the draft legislation as it stands but not to change it “substantially”.

The motion drew on an amendment proposed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2010. Earlier in the day, Dr Rowan Williams expressed his strong desire to see Synod leave a “door open” for the House of Bishops to revisit the Manchester motion.

In the afternoon’s debate, the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu admitted that he did not know exactly what the motion would look like in practice but had pleaded with Synod to back it.

Synod made up its own mind, however, by putting restricting the scope for amendment.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Rev Michael Perham, had urged Synod to reject the Manchester motion.

“Those supporting the Archbishops’ amendment through the Manchester motion don’t seem to recognise that the draft legislation unamended represents a huge sacrifice by supporters of women bishops. The draft legislation is a compromise. It is the middle way,” he said.

He went on to say that if the legislation were to be voted down at final approval, it would be a “missional disaster” that would lead to a “haemorrhaging of women from the Church’s life and ministry”.

“The Synod and the House will been seen to have been deaf to the Church if they endorse any significant departure from the draft legislation,” he said.

“You do not need to vote for Manchester to make room for the exploration that the Archbishop wants the House of Bishops to undertake.”

Although there is no guarantee that the House of Bishops will not move to insert the Manchester motion in its deliberations over the coming months, women bishops campaigner Christina Rees said ‘co-jurisdiction’ was “over” and that Synod had done enough today to avoid the creation of a two-tier episcopate.

“I can’t imagine that [co-jurisdiction] is still in the picture at all,” she said.

“If they try and bring back the Manchester amendment in another guise that would be entirely unacceptable.”

The General Synod meeting in York in July will only be able to approve or reject the draft legislation, not amend it. If it receives final approval, it will need to be passed in both Houses of Parliament and receive royal assent before it becomes reality. The Church of England has said the first women bishops would not be consecrated before 2013.

Rees added: “The message from Synod is: just get on with it.”

The Catholic Group in General Synod welcomed the fact that Synod was open to the possibility of the draft legislation being amended by the House of Bishops.

“[We] call upon the House to do so in a way that will provide properly for those unable in conscience to accept the oversight of women bishops,” the group said.

Sally Barnes, of pro-women bishops group Women and the Church (WATCH), gave a cautious welcome to the vote, saying there was still a “long way to go”.

She said: “We were all pleased the Archbishops’ amendment was defeated but it still leaves wriggle room for the House of Bishops to get something in that would be more discriminatory.”