Wales decision time

Alan Rabjohns provides an overview of the women bishops debate in the Church in Wales, and its importance as a possible indicator of things to come in other provinces of the Anglican Communion

There has been much mention in these pages over the past months of the 'phoney war', and how, with the proposed legislation in Wales, this phase of the conflict was coming to an end.

In trying to write about the current situation in the Province, it looks like we have entered our own time of phoney warfare, for on the surface little seems to be happening. So it might be useful to give some details about just what the process is: what has happened, what is happening now and what will happen in the future.

Here is the story so far. The Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales decided last year that it was time to follow other provinces of the Anglican Communion and look at the prospect of ordaining women to the episcopate. Whether they did this with a full heart may be subject to some doubt: it was evident that, if they had not done so, there would be action in this direction by private members' business in the Governing Body. So, keeping the process in their own hands, a beginning was made.

The first public action was the publication of a special edition of Theology Wales, with articles both for and against the proposition, the latter being provided by Bishop David Thomas and Canon Peter Jones. This was to be the start of the process of consultation -though the precise nature of that consultation was never detailed, unlike the votes in parishes, deaneries and dioceses that preceded the debate on women being ordained to the presbyterate.

The only formal discussion following from this period of consultation was a discussion at the Governing Body in April this year. This was an unusual event: not a debate, with no motion and no standing orders - just a discussion in which anyone who wished could speak. Those against were well represented and anyone listening could be left in no doubt about the strength of feeling and the kind of things that would be needed to make it possible for the Church in Wales to stay together.

Indeed, before this, Bishop David had called together priests who looked to him for pastoral and sacramental care in a synodical meeting in February 2006. This resulted in a clear statement of what was needed, and a working party refined the resolutions flowing from this meeting. This group had a meeting with the Bench of Bishops in March 2007 when, once again, the case was pleaded with cogency and charity.

Following the discussion in April, it was the task of the Bench of Bishops to decide if the Church in Wales should be asked to proceed to the ordination of women to the episcopate and, if so, what form the legislation should take. I suppose there was little doubt as to what the answer to the first question was going to be; the big question, the one we looked to with prayerful anticipation, was the nature of the legislation. That became clear in July when the Bill from the Bench of Bishops was sent to members of the Governing Body and was then in the public domain.

Readers of New Directions will know already the content of that Bill and how far short it falls of anything that traditionalists need. Though not technically a one clause measure', it is to all intents and purposes just that. It says the episcopate is open to women as well as men; it says those who object' will receive pastoral care and support.

The relevant clauses read:

Whereas the Law and Constitution of the Church in Wales has hitherto not permitted women to be ordained as Bishops.
And whereas it is now appropriate in the Church in Wales that women may be ordained as Bishops. And whereas the Church in Wales is mindful both of the provisions of the civil law relating to discrimination upon the basis of gender and of the need to provide pastoral care and support for those who in conscience object to the ordination of women as Bishops.
Be it hereby enacted as follows:
1. Henceforth in the Church in Wales men and women may be ordained as Bishops.
2. The Bench of Bishops will provide pastoral care and support for those who in conscience object to the ordination of women as Bishops.

Members of the Governing Body were then invited to submit amendments to the Bill to a select committee which was established to consider it in detail. Members had until 27 October to submit details of what they would like to be changed in the Bill and a brief explanation of their reasons for proposing the changes. The select committee, which has on it two priests who would be considered to be of our integrity, has the task of looking at amendments and deciding to recommend whether or not they are accepted. They can also propose amendments of their own. When they have completed their work they report to the Standing Committee, who will then decide in what form the Bill will come back to the Governing Body next April. We shall not know the details of that until the papers are sent to members before that meeting.
In many ways it is difficult to work out how to amend the Bill, for it is drafted in such a way that many amendments could be dismissed as wrecking amendments, but much thought has gone into what might be changed.

Attempts have been made to amend the Bill in three areas:

  1. to remove the reference to the civil law in the third recital of the Bill as unnecessary and possibly dangerous;
  2. to amend clause 1 so as to provide more detail on the vague reference to pastoral care and support, either by a schedule defining what will be provided, or by a longer clause which puts flesh on the requests made on our behalf to the Bench of Bishops;
  3. to amend clause 3 so that it is not just saying that bishops are not obliged to take disciplinary action against those who do not accept women bishops, but that they are not allowed to take such action on these grounds.

We now have to wait and see what will happen to these, and any other amendments which may have been submitted. Hence the apparent stage of'phoney war' in our Province at this time.
But this does not mean that nothing is happening.
Above all, what is happening, of course, is prayer. The prayer of thousands of faithful members of the Church in Wales goes up to heaven unceasingly for the peace and unity of the Church. Bishop David has urged us all to pray daily this collect:

O God,
for as much as without thee
we are not able to please thee,
mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit
may in all things
direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

It would be good if all reading this could pray for us in these or in their own words.

The prayer that is offered must be directed especially at opening the hearts and minds of those members of the Governing Body not committed to either 'side' but concerned for justice and fair play. To this end, an open letter has been sent to the church press, signed by over 100 clergy and ordinands, as follows:

We, being clerics and ordinands, both male and female, in the Church in Wales, write to express our concern about the Bill to allow women to be ordained as Bishop, which is about to be considered by a Select Committee of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales.

When the Bill was published in July we learned with dismay that specific requests to the Bench of Bishops for proper provision to enable those who in conscience cannot accept the ordination of women to the episcopacy to remain as honoured members of the Church in Wales had been denied. Instead, Clause 2 offers only a vague, non-defined indication of pastoral care and support from the same Bench of Bishops, Clause 3 leaves open the possibility of disciplinary action for not accepting the novelty and the abandonment of exemptions under the civil law would lead us open to prosecution.

If the Bill were passed in its present form and unamended to provide constitutional provision, it would make it even more difficult for us serving as ordained clergy.

We respectfully ask the Select Committee and Governing Body to consider pastorally and seriously amendments placed before them to make the Bill able to promote the unity and peace of the Church in Wales through which we all wish to continue to serve Christ in this land.

In addition, it is necessary to correct some of the spin that has been put on the proposed legislation. When the Bill was sent to members of the Governing Body, it was accompanied by a letter from the Archbishop. This letter purports to answer the requests put to the Bench in March. Bishop David Thomas has produced an excellent analysis of this letter which will appear in the next edition of Province, due out this month, and subsequently on the website <>.

Although that kind of detailed analysis is not undertaken here, a couple of things need to be said. Firstly, the letter confuses administration and jurisdiction. Questions about access by archdeacons are not relevant to the issue of the kind of episcopal care that would be needed by objectors if women were ordained bishops.

The second point that needs to be made is that what the group of people who went to the meeting of the Bench asked for - and asked on behalf of well over 100 clergy who had met with Bishop David in Abergavenny in February 2006, and not on behalf of Credo Cymru as claimed in the letter - was a bishop or bishops with 'appropriate powers of jurisdiction. This is not the same as asking for diocesan structures. The original resolutions of the synodical meeting in 2006 sought a 'pastoral and sacramental ministry' and 'appropriate powers of jurisdiction, including 'final authority in all matters to do with the selection, training, ordination and nomination to parishes...(and) clergy discipline'.

No doubt there will also be much informal lobbying going on during the months that lie ahead, and it is vitally important that everything that can be done is done.

While the war at the moment may seem to be 'phoney', make no mistake - it is a real war. At stake is the true nature of the Church; but not just the Church in Wales. What happens here will certainly have an impact well beyond the boundaries of this Province. The events that occur in a small province of the Anglican Communion, with clergy numbers equal to a large English diocese, will set the pattern for what happens in the Church of England and beyond.

If this Bill passes as it is, if it is not amended to make proper constitutional provision, then the floodgates are opened for our brothers and sisters in England. If it can be done here, it can be done there. So the National Assembly committed Forward in Faith to support in every way. As Fr Kirk said in seconding that motion, we were being asked to commit our treasure. That such commitment was made with such generosity is truly heartening.

In the Independent on 16 August this year, the current Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, wrote in an obituary for a previous Archbishop, Alwyn Rice Jones, 'In 1996, not a single cleric left the Church in Wales as a result of the bill, and that in no small measure was due to the way in which he handled opponents.' If this is true, one can only hope he will learn the lesson of history!

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