Synod Insider

Gerry O'Brien gives a clear outline of the women bishops running order


This Synod is on its last lap. The quinquennium draws to a close with the July Group of Sessions at York and then we’re off to the hustings. The elections in September will see more of a scramble for seats than we have seen before since the size of Synod is being reduced quite significantly. The House of Bishops survives more or less intact, with the loss of only a few suffragans.

Tighter elections

In the House of Clergy the special seats for archdeacons are abolished, so they will have to compete for places with the other clergy. Given that they are likely to be well known, compared with other candidates, they will probably do well and the numbers of parochial clergy on Synod is likely to decline substantially.

In the House of Laity, the reduced numbers will mean that some retiring members will not get re-elected. More seriously, younger and ethnic minority candidates, the very people we want to attract to Synod, will find it harder than ever to get a look in. When I was first elected to Synod, as a 31 year old, I secured the last place for my diocese. Under the new regime, I would almost certainly have found myself among the ranks of the unsuccessful.

It will be important that the Deanery Synod members in your parish to use their votes wisely. The present Synod will, in its dying gasps in July, consider whether to embark down the road of legislating to permit the ordination of women as bishops. If the Synod decides that it does, it will be writing the agenda for a significant amount of Synod time during the next quinquennium.

The eight stages

The legislative process goes something like this. We ask the question, ‘If we assume we are to have women bishops, what should the legislation look like to make it acceptable to the greatest number?’ The first stage would be to appoint a drafting group, whose job would be to oversee the preparation of the draft Measure and Canon. There could be a one-clause measure, a restrictive measure with only some episcopal posts being open to women, or perhaps including the creation of a free province.

Stage two would be the first consideration by Synod. Various amendments might be proposed at this stage to steer the legislation in the direction of any of the possibilities in the Rochester Report that had not found favour with the drafting group. Then the measure would be referred to a Revision Committee to consider proposals for amendment. At this stage Synod members, and anyone else, could write in to the Revision Committee proposing changes. Stage three would be a report from the Revision Committee saying what changes they proposed and why. There would then be a revision stage in Synod, during which votes would be taken on the Revision Committee’s proposals, but new material could not be introduced at this point.

Stage four would be reference of the amended draft Measure and Canon to diocesan synods. They are not invited to amend the legislation, but are asked for a simple yes or no. The approval of a majority of the synods is required for the legislation to proceed further.

Stage five would be a report back to the Synod from the Business Committee on the outcome of the reference to dioceses. It would be possible for either the Convocations or the House of Laity to insist on separate meetings to discuss the legislation at this stage.

Stage six would be Final Approval by Synod. This is decision-time when members have to vote on the precise legislation before them. A two-thirds majority in each House would be required at this point.

Stage seven would be Parliamentary scrutiny of the Measure, including by the Ecclesiastical Committee. Parliament can simply approve the Measure or reject it. There is no provision for amendment at this stage.

Stage eight would be Royal Assent for the Measure and Promulging of the Canon by Synod.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s best estimate is that this tortuous process ‘cannot realistically take less than about four years.’

Subtle decisions

How Synod members vote would not just be a simple issue of principle. There are those who would vote for or against whatever measure emerged purely on the basis of their desire to have or not to have women bishops in some shape or form. However, some people might be prepared to support the principle, but vote against the measure because they felt that satisfactory provision had not been made for the minority.

There could also be an ecumenical dimension with some members feeling that a course of action that would lead to a fragmentation of the Church of England would not be good for the mission of the church. One hopes that many members of the Synod will be looking beyond the immediate question of whether we would welcome the appointment of a woman bishop. What sort of church do we want to hand on to our children and grandchildren? Would the overall package of satisfying the ambitions of women who might be appointed to episcopal posts be worth whatever degree of disunity accompanied such a development?

An insight into what might lie ahead came from Canon Michael Saward, in a response to a report that the NIV had been modernised by a team of scholars, and now uses inclusive language throughout.

He asserts, ‘The real problem today is that American feminists have pressurised many Christians into a refusal to accept the Messianic use (of the title Son of Man) by Jesus, in favour of bland alternatives which miss the key meaning. They do the same, less successfully, with royal language (king, kingdom), having given up the monarchy long ago. I am particularly conscious of this because my best-known hymn Christ triumphant, which figures in 125 hymnbooks around the world, is not used in the United States: my US publisher tells me that the feminists object to my use of such language. I use nine of the titles of Jesus (Christ, Suffering Servant, Priestly King, Son of Man, Word, Saviour, etc), all from the New Testament.’

Encourage your friends who have a vote in the General Synod elections to use their vote wisely in September. The people they elect will help to determine the future shape of the Church of England, of which we hope to remain members.


Gerry O’Brien is a lay member

of the General Synod, and

represents the Diocese of Rochester

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