We’re certainly not going to get women Bishops on the basis proposed at present, and possibly not at all. I’m puzzled why most of the public discussions and reporting of the General Synod’s recent vote misses this. My puzzlement is nothing to do with conscience, principles or theology (although, of course, I do have my own take on those things). It is simply to do with accurate information and political reality.
When a law is created in Parliament people readily understand that the proposal is developed and reshaped as it moves from being a White Paper, to a Bill read for the first time, to a Bill revised in committee, to an amended Bill passed in both Houses of Parliament, to an Act. A similar process is followed for every General Synod Measure. All the General Synod did last week was agree that a Measure should be drafted, and that a certain form of provision for those who could not accept the Measure should also be drafted. Nobody has yet agreed anything.
The crude political reality is that, if the Measure is to become law, it will need to be passed in its final form by a two thirds majority in each of the three ‘Houses’ of the General Synod (Bishops, Clergy and Laity), and then be ‘deemed expedient’ by a parliamentary committee. But the vote last week to draft a Measure did not achieve a two thirds majority in the House of Laity. And the General Synod has had to revise Measures in the past through caution about presenting anything to Parliament which would seem discriminatory and thus ‘inexpedient’. So those who wish to see the Measure get through (and I am one of them) look like hitting a wall if they don’t change their minds at least about what is appropriate provision for those who will not be able to accept it.
And even then, there is a further wild card. It may not be the present General Synod which will vote on the final approval of the Measure. A new General Synod will be elected in 2010, and it is quite likely that the new House of Laity will be slightly more conservative than the old one. This won’t be because there will be a higher proportion of Anglo Catholic members representing those who might leave. It would be because things like the Gafcon movement are likely to be efficient in securing at least a slightly higher proportion of members who don’t want to see women in any authority or teaching position in the church at all. So even a Measure with more generous provision for those who cannot accept it might well fail to get final approval anyway.
The wider Anglican church already has a number of Bishops who are women. 68% of the members of the present General Synod have voted for the preparation of legislation for the consecration of women Bishops here as well. The Church of England has been ordaining women as priests since 1994 and more and more of these priests are being appointed to the other most senior positions in the church. It might simply look as if it is natural that we will now move forward here.
But there is no done deal to open the way for women to become Bishops here, and the stronger political possibility is that the majority (including the significant number of women priests) are going to be deeply frustrated when this deal turns out not to be done. By 2011 we could quite well find that the Church of England has failed to open the way, and perhaps one or two of those who would most obviously make outstanding Bishops will be being elected as Bishops of dioceses in Canada, New Zealand and the United States instead.
The picture is a church wall (it is at St Michael’s, Little Coates, and, although it is not relevant to the theme of this post, I love the way the low early morning sun brings out the texture).