Draft Legislation to Consecrate Women Bishops

Introduction: Earlier this week the first draft was published of legislation to permit women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. The draft will be considered by the General Synod in February and it must either be rejected or passed a Revision Committee, the latter being by far the most likely outcome.

Draft Legislation to Consecrate Women Bishops

Earlier this week the first draft was published of legislation to permit women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.  The draft will be considered by the General Synod in February and it must either be rejected or passed a Revision Committee, the latter being by far the most likely outcome.


The Synod voted in July to continue with the proposal whilst making provision for those who cannot in conscience accept the episcopal ministry of women.  The Council of Church Society, along with other classical evangelicals, has consistently rejected this innovation as being incompatible with the plain teaching of Scripture regarding presbyteral/episcopal  ministry. Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England have also consistently opposed the innovation for similar and other reasons.

Many evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics left the Church of England following the decision to ordain women as priests in 1991 and since that point the decline in the membership of the Church has accelerated and the number of men in ordained ministry has plummeted.  Churches within the Anglican Communion which have agreed to, and actually consecrated, women as Bishops are among the most liberal and consequently most fragmented and fastest declining components of the Communion.

Therefore, because of Scripture, and also because of Reason and Tradition a large number of members of the Church of England still reject this innovation.  If they are to remain within the Church of England there will have to be acceptable provision made for them, otherwise the Church will fragment and decline further.

Earlier in 2008 the House of Bishops and the General Synod both considered the nature of provision if legislation goes ahead.  Both rejected the proposals of those calling for provision signalling their willingness to divide the Church over an issue that has no support in Scripture.

The Present Report

The legislative drafting group were thus required to bring forward legislation which makes some provision but which is unacceptable to the vast majority of those requesting it.  One member of the Group, Jonathan Baker, an Anglo-Catholic, resigned his membership following the decision of the General Synod in July since clearly the Group would be unable to produce acceptable provision.  Notwithstanding this the Group have gone about as far as they possibly can within the constraints placed upon them.

If the proposed legislation were to be passed unamended then:
•    Women could continue to be ordained as priests and could also be consecrated as bishops.  (Note : The lawyers appear to admit the point long made by evangelicals that properly speaking bishops are not ordained but consecrated in the Church of England.)
•    The 1993 Measure permitting the ordination of women will be repealed along with all its provisions for those who cannot accept the presbyteral ministry of women.  This will directly impact the more than 1,000 parishes who have passed Resolutions A & B under that Measure.
•    Male bishops will be able to exempt themselves from participating in the consecration of a women bishop or the ordination of a woman priest.
•    The Measure itself makes provision for the creation of  provincial suffragan sees with  male bishops who will minister to those who request their oversight.  This is akin to the present flying bishops but actually strengthens the position since their foundation is now in legislation whereas previously it was just in what is known as an Act of Synod.  These bishops are referred to as “complementary bishops”.  
•    The Measure also spells out some of the provisions in the code thus ensuring that the code must provide these things and that they cannot be removed from the code without the Measure itself being changed.
•    The list of functions which can be provided by the “complementary bishops” seems to include everything which has been asked for including appointments and sponsorship for ordination.
•    The Code will also make provision similar to Resolutions A & B, though again these are not now longer in legislation, just in a Code of Practice.

There has also been an attempt to strengthen the status of the code.  The Code can be revised by the House of Bishops but if the Business Committee of the General Synod deem it to contain matters touching on Article 7 of the constitution (that is relating to doctrine) then a full synodical process of debate will be necessary.  Otherwise the Synod can still debate the code and must approve it, though it cannot amend the code.

Unacceptable provision

This might appear to give the Code of Practice considerable force. However, this is not the case.  At present a fundamental change such as the consecration of women bishops requires much more than a simple majority.   This is intended to prevent the Church being blown about by fads and fashions.  But the Code, which contains the real meat of the provision for those who cannot accept the innovation, can be changed by a simple majority of Synod.  Thus the majority could render the provisions more or less ineffective.  The valiant attempt made to strengthen the status of the Code will have some effect, but not very much.   If adequate provision is to be made and to be acceptable it must be in the legislation itself because the Code cannot provide the necessary safeguards.

It must also be recognised that though bishops and others will have a “duty to have regard to” the Code this sort of thing is notoriously difficult to monitor and enforce.

Finally, the legislation is not making provision for alternative oversight, but just a form of delegated oversight.  Opponents have consistently said that delegated oversight is inadequate.  In particular, where a woman bishop is appointed parishes will still be under her authority and will have to petition her for the “complementary” oversight.  Yet the very nature of the problem is that those parishes do not accept her authority.  Thus the fundamental issue remains unresolved by this set of proposals.

What now?

At the end of the day any draft legislation has to be passed by the 2/3rds majorty of each of the three houses of the General Synod and then accepted by Parliament.  To date, several important votes on this subject have gained a majority in each house, but twice they have failed to gain the 2/3rd of the House of Laity indicating that the whole package could yet fall at the final hurdle.

The General Synod in February will debate the draft legislation.  If it is approved, as it almost certainly will be, then it will go to a revision committee which will consider proposed changes.  It is possible for the revision committee to make the proposed legislation much stronger, or weaker in its provision for opponents.  The revised legislation is likely to return to General Synod in February 2010.  Further revision is then possible.

David Phillips, General Secretary, Church Society

Filed: 2 Jan 2009


Office posted the article on Tuesday, 6th January 2009 at 10:11pm
Article updated on saturday, 24th january 2009 at 11:01pm

St Barnabas takes every care to check the accuracy of news information from external sources listed on our website, but we realise errors can happen. Please let us know if we have inadvertently posted something incorrect. Thank you!