Room for Improvement

Paul Benfield as a priest and a lawyer has read through the Guildford report and gives a simple analysis of its limitations and misunderstandings. He shows that there is much work still to be done

The Report of the House of Bishops’ Women Bishops Group (GS1605) was published on 16 January. Since the Report was that of a small working group chaired by the Bishop of Guildford it has become known as the Guildford Report. The Bishop had kindly invited a group from Forward in Faith to meet with him and so Stephen Parkinson (Director) and Fr Geoffrey Kirk (Secretary) attended, together with Brian Hanson and myself (both of whom had been members of the Legal Working Party which had produced Part Two of ‘Consecrated Women?’). As the meeting took place immediately after the House of Bishops meeting, Bishop Christopher was able to brief us on the final draft of the Guildford Report and the procedure which the House was recommending to the February General Synod. So when I received my copy I had more idea what to expect than those who had to rely only on the leaks they had seen in the press. Nonetheless, to assess fully such an important document quickly is impossible and so what follows are simply preliminary observations.

he Guildford Group had been set up to consider the real choice of options as to how women might be incorporated into the episcopate of the Church of England. Its work was given added focus by the July 2005 Synod motion which asked that the House of Bishops ‘give specific attention to the issues of canonical obedience and the universal validity of orders throughout the Church of England as it would affect clergy and laity who cannot accept the ordination of women to the episcopate on theological grounds.’ Given that motion, it is surprising that the Report does not contain more on the oath.

Whilst it is discussed in the main text and there is a note by the Legal Adviser on the Oath of Obedience (Appendix 3), these are concerned entirely with a priest’s oath to his diocesan bishop and there is no discussion of the oath by a bishop to his archbishop. It would be impossible for a bishop who could not recognize women bishops to take an oath to a woman archbishop and yet the Report envisages that either or both archbishops could be women, without explaining how this difficulty of the oath of obedience is to be solved.

The Report quickly dismisses, as unacceptable to both sides of the argument, the possibility discussed in the Rochester Report of limiting women bishops to suffragan bishops or of creating episcopal teams of both men and women (para.28). It goes on to consider what it believes are the three main options: a ‘single clause’ Measure with a code of practice, a third (or free) province and transferred episcopal arrangements.

By this is meant a simple Measure which would remove the present prohibition in law on women becoming bishops. Parishes would still be able to pass Resolutions A and B and thus prevent a woman presiding at the Eucharist or becoming incumbent (unless it was also decided to repeal these provisions). However, any protection for priests, people and parishes who could not accept women bishops would be contained in a code of practice.

The Report rightly highlights the uncertainty as to the enforceability of a code and the fact that a code of practice cannot affect jurisdiction or the oath of canonical obedience. It concludes that since a code of practice would not meet the perceived needs of those who are opposed to the admission of women to the episcopate, ‘the Church of England must examine other options and then ask whether or not they are an acceptable compromise in terms of both ecclesiology and justice.’

It is most unfortunate that in the summary box under this heading, the Report (p.15), whilst referring to Consecrated Women? in the footnote, misrepresents what that report actually says. Guildford states ‘Proponents of a Third Province include those who propose the creation of a body not unlike the Church in Wales, which would have a defined and distinct geographical identity,’ whereas Consecrated Women? itself (p.121 para.5.3) states ‘Unlike the formation of the Church in Wales in 1920, when a separate church was created out of parts of the Church of England, the new province would remain part of the Church of England.’ This and the fact that the Report states (para.37) that there would be no room for permeable borders within a new province (an objection answered in my article in New Directions October 2005) makes me wonder if the Guildford Group has really understood our proposals. If there had been the consultation for which we were asking such matters could have been clarified.

Guildford states (para.38) that the advantages of a Third Province are that it has ecclesiological clarity, it meets the stated needs for adequate safeguards and it removes discriminatory provisions against women from the main body of the Church of England. It then lists seven disadvantages of a new province (para.39). These are that it could represent a major schism in the Church of England; it would amount to a competing provincial jurisdiction; it would be unhealthy to establish a province solely on the grounds of opposition to women bishops; there would be a risk of it becoming ‘another continuing Anglican Church’; it would be primarily designed to meet the needs of those within the Catholic tradition of the Church of England and might not meet the needs of those primarily concerned with issue of headship; the separate administrative structures that it would entail means that it would be more costly; and there must be the political risk that parliamentary approval might not be forthcoming.

I would have welcomed more explanation of these perceived disadvantages because I think that some of them are unjustified fears and others may be acceptable risks in order to keep opponents of women bishops in the Church of England. There must be an equal or greater risk of failure to secure Parliamentary approval for a ‘single clause’ Measure (albeit for different reasons) and so it seems odd and unbalanced to list that as a disadvantage for a third province but not for the single clause Measure.

The Report says that if the Church of England concludes that neither the single clause measure, nor the third province are acceptable, then it faces a stark choice. One option would be to conclude that the legislative process to admit women to the episcopate cannot be pursued further for some considerable time to come. The other would be something akin to the London Plan on a provincial level. My initial observation is that the London Plan works because everybody can accept that all the bishops in London (being male) are bishops and so there can be a collegiality between those bishops. Furthermore, the Bishop of London does not ordain women priests so the Bishop of Fulham can be in full and unimpaired communion with him. Once the Church of England has women bishops not everyone will be able to accept that all the bishops in the province are bishops and so collegiality disappears and, unless the archbishops are not to consecrate women, there will be problems of impaired communion. So simply extending the London Plan to the whole province is unlikely to be satisfactory.

Under Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (TEA) a parish could pass a resolution whereby the diocesan bishop would request the archbishop to arrange for episcopal ministry to be provided for that parish by a Provincial Regional Bishop (PRB). The PRB would exercise jurisdiction on certain matters (e.g. pastoral care, sacramental and disciplinary functions) while the diocesan would exercise jurisdiction on other matters (para.42).

There would thus be a ‘shared episcopal ministry’ between the diocesan bishop, the archbishop and the PRB. Is not this something like the team episcopacy already rejected? Furthermore, it would mean that the sacramental and juridical functions of bishops would become separated, something which the Report itself argues against elsewhere. The Legal Adviser states (para.136) that ‘it is not clear that canon law provides any real support for the suggestion that a distinction can be made between the exercise by a bishop of jurisdiction and the performance of sacramental acts...’

Clergy in TEA parishes would take the oath of obedience to the archbishop ‘through the PRB, who would administer the oath and personally exercise this jurisdiction’ (para.121). The phrase ‘through the PRB’ needs explanation, since an oath is either taken to the archbishop or it is not, irrespective of who administers the oath. Guildford addresses the situation of what happens if either archbishop were a woman. It envisages that the woman archbishop would nominate a diocesan bishop in the province or observe an established procedure for precedence so that the archbishop’s jurisdiction would be transferred to a male bishop ‘if it were necessary for such jurisdiction to be exercised by a male bishop’. So we would then have four bishops involved: diocesan, archbishop, nominated (male) diocesan bishop of the province and PRB. Presumably the oath would then be taken to the nominated diocesan bishop ‘through the PRB.’

A parish which wished to become a TEA parish would do so by passing a majority resolution at a Special Parochial Church Meeting (i.e. a meeting of all those on the church electoral roll), four weeks notice having been given. Only parishes which had passed a resolution for TEA would be able to prevent women priests and bishops from exercising their ministry within the parish. In other words, outside TEA parishes, the current restrictions on women’s ministry in Resolutions A and B would disappear.

The Report rightly considers the question of sacramental assurance which is so essential to us. The Chairman says in a note (para.127) that ‘the Church is obliged to take the least doubtful course of action in order that there need be no doubt in the conscience of the faithful recipient that they are truly receiving the grace instrumental to that sacrament.’ He goes on to state our position that as there is doubt as to a whether a woman bishop really is a bishop her ordinations must be in doubt and consequently all the sacramental acts of those (male and female) ordained by her are in doubt. But he goes on to say (para.130) that it is ‘the Church of England’s intention that all who are ordained according to its ordinals are indeed intended to be truly bishops, priests and deacons’ and ‘this should be upheld by all. This would leave room for the pastoral recognition that of the reality that some are not able to recognize the actual ministry of women bishops including their ordinations.’

It is not clear from the Report what form this pastoral recognition is to take. In the main text (para.48) it is stated that ‘we do not believe that the Church of England should further discriminate between those ordained by duly consecrated bishops of the Church, whether male or female.’ Consequently there is no mention in the TEA resolution of the fact that the TEA parish would find a male priest ordained by a woman bishop unacceptable. This means that a patron could force a PRB to institute such a priest to a TEA parish, thereby destroying the sacramental assurance which we need.

Because TEA was not one of the options considered by the Rochester Report little thought has yet been given to its advantages and disadvantages by most of us. Among the advantages of TEA suggested by the Report is that it ‘substantially meets the essential needs of those who could not accept that women should be bishops and in consequence could not accept the authority of a woman diocesan bishop’ (para.46).

It seems clear to me at this early stage that the present TEA proposals do not meet our needs because they do not adequately deal with questions of collegiality of bishops, jurisdiction of PRBs and sacramental assurance. Whether or not they can be improved to address those questions remains to be seen.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is to propose a motion at the February Synod that TEA merits further exploration as a basis for proceeding in a way that will maintain the highest possible degree of communion in the Church of England. The motion goes on to invite all members to reflect prayerfully and consult widely on the serious decision now facing the church. The Legal Working Party which produced Part Two of Consecrated Women? will be re-convened to consider TEA. I hope that this time someone from the House of Bishops will consult it.

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