Confused debate

Richard Rolands gives a blow by blow account of the debate in the Church of Wales over women bishops, and how it came up with the wrong answer, to the annoyance of its archbishop

The Governing Body of the Church in Wales met in its usual home, The University of Wales, Lampeter on Wednesday and Thursday, 2-3 April 2008. The main item on the agenda was the Bill to enable women to be ordained to the episcopate -a preliminary debate on this subject being held last April at the University of Aberystwyth, the motion being passed on that occasion by a straightforward majority. This time the Bill needed to receive a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses.

Before the Bill itself could be debated, it had to pass through the Committee Stage of Bill Procedure. In the end the Committee proposed two amendments of its own - the crucial one being that 'the Bench of Bishops will provide pastoral care and support for those who in conscience cannot accept the ordination of women as priests and bishops through the ministry of an Assistant Bishop or Bishops.' The Chairman of the Select Committee, His Honour Judge Nicholas Cooke qc, presented the report of the Select Committee and said that although the Committee had come to a good measure of agreement, there were differences of opinion as to what provision should be provided.

Mr Anthony Jeremy (Llandaff) began the debate by saying that we had come to a defining moment in the history of the Church in Wales. The Church in Wales should pay attention to the traditional reasons why the episcopate should be restricted to males. The Church had unbroken obedience to this for 2000 years, and it lay beyond the competence of the Church in Wales to change those rules without the consent of the Universal Church. The ministry of an Assistant Bishop would allow those who disagreed to remain within the church.

The Bishop of Monmouth argued that passing the amendment would fudge the issue, and that the pastoral provisions proposed by the Bench of Bishops would work better than the amendment. Canon Jeremy Winston (Monmouth) said that many who were unhappy about the Bill wished to remain loyal members of the Church in Wales, and that the provision of a Provincial Assistant Bishop (PAB) would prevent possible schism in the church. It would allow those who are not in agreement with women bishops to continue to play a full and active part in the life of the Church in Wales.

The Archbishop said that people who wanted women bishops might see the amendment as attractive, but it differed from the present arrangements in notbeingvol-untary for the bishops, but constitutional and canonical. He said that they would be appointing a male bishop who had doubts about the validity of the orders of a woman bishop. Such a bishop and his followers would have real doubts as to whether the sacraments presided over by her were real sacraments and real doubts about whether anyone ordained by her, male or female, was actually ordained. He said that the amendment was seeking alternative, not additional pastoral care.

The Provincial Assistant Bishop, David Thomas, said that he had found the debate painful to listen to. He agreed that there were anomalies, but said that the most basic and extraordinary anomaly was that in 1996 the Church in Wales legislated for the ordination of women to the priesthood, and that anomaly would become greater with women bishops. He hoped that his ministry over the past 11 years had helped to maintain the highest degree of unity possible, and said that there was a deafening silence regarding provision of a bishop for those who could not accept women's ordination when he retired at the end of June.

When the amendment was put it was defeated. The Governing Body then moved on to debate the Bill itself. The Archbishop proposed the Bill, providing what he felt to be theological and biblical reasons for ordaining women to the episcopate. The Bishop of St Asaph, seconding, called on the church to have the courage to move forward to the future and not recede into the past. He said that a refusal to ordain women bishops would send a negative message to modern Wales.

There were many contributions to the debate - both for and against. Canon Andrew Knight (Swansea and Brecon) said that although he supported women's ministry as priests and bishops, he was concerned for the unity of the Church in Wales and felt the Bill as presented was too hard and too negative. The Dean of Monmouth said that the appointment of the PEVs in England had at least enabled the church to live together as one family; we should be bold and honest enough to say 'not yet'.

Significantly as it turned out, Canon Joe Griffin (Swansea and Brecon) said that he wanted to support the Bill but was perplexed as to why there was so much silence from the bench regarding future provision of a PAB. Canon Tudor Griffiths (St Asaph) also felt deeply for those who could not accept the Bill, and wanted to hear more about what was entailed in the pastoral support and care offered. On the other hand, Dr Gill Todd (Swansea and Brecon) said that she wanted a celebration of the unified ministry of men and women, working together over the past 11 years, and supported the bill as a way to enable members of the church to move together and 'celebrate their diversity'.

In summing up, the Archbishop felt that opponents should not be fearful of the Bill, and that the Bishops had tried to be even-handed with the pastoral principals they proposed. He even went so far as to point out that the bench had not yet had time to consider the possibility of a successor to Bishop David.

The vote was then taken - 'that henceforth in the Church in Wales men and women may be ordained as Bishops', and the result was Laity for 52, against 19, abstention 1, Clergy for 27, against 18, abstention 1, Bishops for 4, against 0, abstention 0. There not being a two thirds majority in the House of Clergy, the Bill failed. But because it failed in only one house, it can come back at any time; as no doubt it will.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page