Nothing yet stirring

Synod has not yet finalized the shape of legislation for women bishops and provision for those who object to it, and this will still be the case even after the February 2009 Synod, as Paul Benfield explains


I was speaking last autumn to a priest who told me that he 'would wait to see what Synod did in February' before deciding on his future. I consider that priest to be relatively well-informed about the affairs of the Church of England, and yet he was making the February 2009 Synod the basis on which his whole future life would be mapped out. I had to tell him that we shall, in all probability, be in exactly the same position after the February Synod as we were before it and that, consequently, such a major decision should not be made by him on the basis of what does or does not happen in London on the morning of Wednesday 11 February.

On that day Synod will give first consideration to the Draft Measure to allow women bishops. The standing orders of the General Synod clearly and unambiguously state the procedure to be followed. The motion to be considered will be 'That the Measure entitled the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure be considered for revision in committee.' No amendment to that motion will be in order. So the Synod will have a simple choice (unless some procedural motion to move to next business or adjourn is passed). It can reject the motion or approve it. If it rejects the motion then all consideration of the Measure will cease and it may not be considered again for at least eleven months. If the motion is carried then the Measure will automatically pass to the Revision Committee. That is all that can happen in February.

The same procedure will be followed for the associated Draft Amending Canon No. 30. The Synod will either send the draft canon to the Revision Committee or halt its consideration.

Do not be deceived by claims that Synod has confirmed its decision of July 2008 and approved the statutory code of practice as its favoured method of providing for those who cannot accept women bishops. Do not believe anyone who says that the shape of the legislation is now fixed and that all we can get is a code of practice. Do not believe anyone who tells you that Synod has decided that in future a priest must swear an oath of obedience to more than one bishop, both his diocesan and any other bishop set in authority over him. Synod cannot, in the February debate, alter the shape of the legislation or provision for those opposed at all and it cannot redraft the Amending Canon. Alterations come later at the Revision Stage.

The Revision Committee (which will be appointed shortly after the February Synod) will consist of both those in favour of the legislation and amending canon and those opposed to them. It will consist of those who think that the statutory code of practice is the right way forward and those who think that some other method should be found. Any member of Synod may make submissions to the Revision Committee containing proposals for amendment of the Measure, including the addition of new clauses.
These proposals for amendment may include proposals for options which have been the subject of unsuccessful amendments earlier in the synodical process. So we can expect that there will be proposals for the three dioceses option and for the statutory transfer option considered in the Manchester Report. A covering note from the House of Bishops says that individual bishops will be able to lend their support to attempts to amend the draft legislation.

Similarly we can expect proposals concerning the Amending Canon, especially in relation to the novel concept of the requirement to make an oath of obedience to more than one bishop. It will be surprising if there are no proposals concerning Canon A4 which is being changed from a canon concerned with 'the form and manner of making, ordaining and consecrating bishops, priest and deacons' (as its title puts it) to one dealing with the recognition of male and female orders.
In addition to matters previously considered by Synod, new matters within the general purport of the legislation maybe proposed. So we can expect proposals that the measure should not come into force until adequate financial provision for those clergy forced to resign has been enacted and come into force (the women priests legislation contained such a clause). We have always said that we did not want financial provision because we wanted to stay in the Church of England. But if there is a possibility that provision for those who cannot accept women bishops may be so inadequate, then we must seek to provide for those forced to resign as a result of the legislation.

The Revision Committee is expected to take at least a year to carry out its work and so in February 2010 or later the Measure and Amending Canon will return to Synod for revision in full Synod. Arguments made in the Revision Committee maybe made again in full Synod. Amendments accepted by the Revision Committee may be reversed in full Synod and amendments rejected by the Revision Committee may be approved by the full Synod. So it is only after revision in full Synod that we shall know the shape of the legislation and provision for those opposed. It is at that stage that the Measure and Canon will be referred to the Diocesan Synods before finally returning to General Synod where it must achieve a two-thirds majority at final approval in all three houses of bishops, clergy and laity.
So to the priest to whom I spoke last autumn, and to all other clergy and laity, I say the time to be deciding your future in the Church of England is not now, but some years down the line. The February Synod will not determine anything except that the process of considering the legislation and canon to allow women bishops should continue or it should stop for the time being. Nothing more than that.

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