Dear Members of the Steering Committee,
First, we would like to assure you of our prayers and support as you work on the steering committee to produce a new legislative package for women in the episcopate. As you prepare for the next meeting of the committee, we hope that you might find helpful these reflections arising from our discussions of the current process. We wish to comment on three related areas of concern:
1) The continuing status of PEVs. We understand that there is some discussion as to whether the sees of Ebbsfleet, Richborough, and Beverley should continue in perpetuity. Our view would be that they should not. David Wilbourne, now assistant bishop of Llandaff, who was chaplain to Archbishop John Habgood at the time the Act of Synod was drafted, commented in the Church in Wales’ debate on women bishops that the PEVs had only been intended as an interim arrangement in the Church of England. Once there are women as bishops we cannot see how the continuation of these sees can possibly square with first two elements of the vision. Further, we are concerned that giving these bishops an outward focus, or wider responsibility within the church at large, might not be positive for the flourishing of ordained women.
Additionally, we question whether these bishops should continue to attend all meetings of the House of Bishops as a matter of course, and why they cannot stand for election to that House as does any other suffragan bishop.
In light of recent decisions in the Church in Wales, the opinion has been voiced that a female bishop could not be a ‘father in God’ in the diocese. We wonder, therefore, whether it might be more helpful if that phrase could be deleted such that Canon C.18.1 read:
‘Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy; it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions; and, himself an example of righteous and godly living, it is his duty to set forward and maintain quietness, love, and peace among all men.’
In this connection, we note that the Canons are in urgent need of revision to inclusivise the language employed throughout!
2) The language of ‘mutual flourishing’ in point 5 of the vision. The use of this language evades the (proper) question raised previously in GS 1886 and the annexed report about the theological and ecclesiological breadth and boundaries of the Church of England. We want to see individuals flourish in their Christian lives; not every theological opinion should be allowed to do so. Moreover, we are concerned for the health of the
whole church, and this language seems to us to lay up a hostage to fortune: we are sure no-one wants to commit the Church of England to decades’ more wrangling about this question.
The term lacks clarity: how do we define what does and does not permit ‘mutual flourishing’, or even what that might look like in certain places? ++Justin recently (Transformations 19/9/13) called for evidence-based decision-making in the Church; we cannot see how including such language in a legislative package is in sympathy with that approach. Further, we are concerned that if this phrase is to be seen as a core component of the Mandatory Grievance Procedure, the lack of clarity will cause very real, practical problems. (One such example would be surrounding the question of selection of ordination candidates, and meeting their training needs.) With respect to the Grievance Procedure, we would hope for clarity as to how it relates to the Clergy Discipline Measure, and what would be the boundaries of its use.
Even qualified as ‘mutual flourishing’ this language could be taken as articulating the ‘two integrities’ thinking that has become entrenched as a result of the terms of the 1992/3 settlement, and which is at odds with the first two elements of the vision. In order to ensure reciprocity and to avoid de facto separatism, we would want to see the model resolution for PCCs seeking alternative oversight to commit them also to the five elements of the vision.
With these various concerns in mind, we wonder whether it might be possible for the fifth point to be recast, perhaps as follows:
‘Pastoral and sacramental provision for those who do not accept the ministry of women within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion across the whole Church of England.’
Wording along these lines would have the advantage of removing the ‘majority/minority’ language which we have consistently said is unhelpful.
3) Although we continue to welcome the emphasis on reconciliation work, we have severe misgivings about the timing of it in relation to the legislative process. Reconciliation between individuals and communities divided, and the healing of the broken Body of Christ, is self-evidently at the heart of our vocation as a church: as a community of the reconciled, we are called to bear witness to Christ’s reconciliation. Ultimately, however, we are not persuaded that it is the appropriate lens through which to regard the matter in hand. A framework of reconciliation will not help us arrive at some sort of theological synthesis. If the Church of England is to follow through on her commitment to the gospel truth of the equal dignity of women and men before God in Christ, she cannot continue to fudge this issue: the truth-telling action must precede a process of reconciliation, and this may – unavoidably – prove both painful and costly.
We realise that this is the process in which the Church is now engaged, which Synod has expressed a desire to continue, and we urge our supporters to engage positively with it. Our understanding was that the building of trust in the current process was intended to
establish whether a combination of simple legislation and strong principle would be a way forward. This whole idea is undermined if we go back to micro-engineering provision, by one means or another. It is also undermined if core concepts such as ‘mutuality’ and ‘flourishing’ are taken lightly: if these are to be the terms in which strong principle is articulated, all have to commit to them – not just in words (though that would itself be welcome in a climate in which unhelpful words have been put in print about recent developments in Wales and Ireland), but also in intention and practice.
In light recent news from New Zealand, Wales, Ireland, and South India, and the expressed will of Synod to proceed with this as a matter of urgency, we do not see how the Church of England can with any credibility continue to appear hesitant on this issue.
We hope these reflections will be helpful to you; please be assured of our prayers as you meet.
Yours sincerely,
The WATCH National Committee