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Women bishops: Archbishop's speech in House of Lords debate

Tuesday 14th October 2014

Archbishop of Canterbury’s opening speech in this afternoon’s House of Lords debate on the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure.

Peers later accepted the General Synod proposal, passed by the Synod in July, without a vote. 

Archbishop Justin's speech: 

My Lords, it is now 95 years since Parliament conferred on the Church of England the power to initiate legislation, which, following Parliamentary Approval and the Royal Assent, becomes part of the law of England.

Most of the Measures passed by the Church Assembly and, since 1970, by the General Synod have been necessary but modest revisions of the Church’s rule book and the law of England. Texts such as the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2014 or the Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure 2011 were not framed with excitement in mind. And even they sound positively racy compared with that early piece of Church Assembly legislation considered by this House in the days of Archbishop Davidson – the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure 1923.

Just occasionally, though, the Church brings to Parliament legislation which is of more significance and effect. The Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 was one such, and so was the legislation passed by Synod in 1992 to enable women to be ordained priests in the Church of England.

This afternoon the House has before it another piece of legislation which is designed to achieve a change of historical significance, at least in Church terms. Its effect is to enable the Church of England, for the first time, to open all three orders of ministry – deacons, priests and bishops – without reference to gender.

The process that was begun by the legislation to enable women to become deacons in the 1980s and then priests in the 1990s will at last be completed by legislation which enables women to become bishops – and indeed archbishops, since they are not a separate order of ministry – in the Church of England.

Over the past 20 years many women have given outstanding leadership as vicars, archdeacons and cathedral deans. Now for the first time, every post will be open to them.

For many people within the Church of England and others it has been a process full of frustration when looked at from the outside; and it has been somewhat baffling, particularly in recent years, that something which seems so simple and obvious should have become such a considerable problem. After all, surely the big step was taken in the early 1990s with the admission of women to the priesthood – and that indeed is true theologically and psychologically. What matters to most people in the church is who the vicar is.

Nevertheless, the Church of England at the Reformation did not opt for a system of congregational or Presbyterian governance. We remained, like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions, an episcopal church where bishops are the leaders in mission and ministry; give authority to others as ordained ministers of the Gospel through the laying on of hands; and above all are the focus of unity – and that is very relevant to the structure of this Measure.

It is because bishops are at the heart of Anglican polity – indeed are included in the Lambeth-Chicago Quadrilateral as one of the four defining features of Anglicanism – that the process of securing agreement to this legislation has been so long and difficult.

The heart of the dilemma has been how to try and maintain the theological breadth and diversity of the Church of England while securing a solution which avoids any appearance of equivocation over the Church of England’s commitment to equality between men and women.

In November 2012 the Measure failed, and it looked as if the circle could not be squared. By a narrow margin in the House of Laity of six votes, the General Synod rejected legislation at the Final Approval stage – despite the fact it had received approval from all but two of the dioceses in the country.

In the course of last year, however – perhaps chastened by that sobering experience and the adverse reaction across the country – people from a wide range of convictions in the Church of England came together and put together the Measure we have now before us. 

The result is a very simple piece of legislation. It’s buttressed both by a declaration from the House of Bishops setting out five key principles, and by regulations, made under Canon, to establish a grievance procedure with an ombudsperson which will be overseen by independent review.

For traditional catholics and headship evangelicals it remains a matter of regret that the Church of England has taken the decision that it has. But they accept that the arrival of women bishops is the clear view of the overwhelming majority within the Church of England, and in general they have signalled their wish to remain as loyal members of this Church for as long as it has a respected place for them. Similarly, for many of the advocates for gender equality it remains a matter of regret that the Church of England has made special arrangements for those who, on the grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women priests or bishops.

Nevertheless the overwhelming majorities at Final Approval in the three Houses of Synod – 95% in the House of Bishops, 87% in the House of Clergy and 77% in the House of Laity – (majorities in this House would be considered moderately comfortable) – signal the commitment that there is to delivering this historic change while, so far as possible, maintaining the traditional diversity of the Church.

It is not simply for reasons of history or nostalgia that we wish to remain a broad Church. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian message; in fact, it has been said that it is the Christian message. And it is a message – as the discussions in this House over the last few weeks have shown – that the world desperately needs. The example of being able to live with difference, and yet to live in unity, is called for more and more. We may regard other members of the Christian family as irritating, embarrassing or plain wrong. But they are part of the family, and we don’t choose our families.

My Lords, there is much else I could say but let me in conclusion simply add two other points. First, I want to note that Clause 2 constitutes what in our view, and that of Government lawyers, is a clarificatory provision concerning the definition of “public office” in the Equality Act.

This is a complex area which we covered in some detail in our memorandum to the Ecclesiastical Committee, which is annexed to the Committee’s Report.

Under the House of Bishop’s Declaration there will be some occasions when some bishops – men as well as women – will need to ask another bishop to exercise some of their functions in relation to a particular parish. If episcopal posts were public offices, as defined in the Equality Act, appointing to them in the expectation that the person concerned would observe that self-denying ordinance would constitute discrimination in the terms in which the appointment was offered.

We don’t in fact believe that episcopal offices fall within the  definition of “public office” in the Equality Act – life peers don’t either for that matter – but it is unclear what view the courts would take if the matter were ever tested, so Clause 2 puts the matter beyond any doubt.

Secondly, one of the many happy consequences of this measure will be that the Lords Spiritual benches will in due course include women as well as men. But that could take some time if the normal seniority system were simply left to take its course. 

The Synod did not have the power to include in the Measure amendments to the law on the issuing of parliamentary writs. But there have been consultations with all the main parties on the possibility of a very short and simple Government Bill which could be taken through this session to accelerate the arrival of the first women Lords Spiritual. There has been solid cross-party support and I very much hope that the Government will be able to find a suitable legislative slot very shortly.

My Lords, the measure before you today is very, very long overdue. The arrival of women diocesan bishops in this House is equally long overdue. I commend to you the motion standing in my name.


 

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