Church of England's legislation on women bishops 'needs more work'

Published 08 February 2012
The Church of England's governing body has heard that more work needs to be done on draft legislation to allow women bishops.

General Synod is considering legislation making provision for those who cannot in conscience accept a woman bishop, including an amendment that would grant greater authority to clergy providing alternative oversight.

The Manchester motion is based on an amendment put forward by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2010 and proposes 'co-ordinate' jurisdiction in dioceses where a parish has requested male oversight.

This would make the intervening male bishop less subject to the authority of the female diocesan bishop than under the 'delegated' jurisdiction being proposed in the draft legislation as it stands.

The Rt Rev Nigel Stock, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, told Synod that the committee on the draft Code of Practice, which he chaired, had sought to enable "consistency" and "avoid confusion" in the application of the scheme.

Canon Chris Sugden, of orthodox group Anglican Mainstream, questioned whether the Code of Practice would be able to achieve this.

He said: "They produced a code for two bishops to work together, neither of whom believes in principle in what they are called to do - one to receive delegation from a person they might not regard in episcopal orders, the other to give delegation to which they in principle object.

"This disagreement needs to be addressed and this gap reached across. Is the code of practice strong enough to bridge this principled disagreement?"

Bishop Stock responded by admitting that he was "not sure how far the Code can address it".

"There could be more done about how we work constructively together but we can only produce a Code that reflects the Measure [on women bishops]," he said.

The bishop admitted that the committee had not looked for examples of good practice in parts of the Anglican Communion where women are already being consecrated as bishops.

"Nowhere else [has] a Measure quite like the one we are presenting and we only had the time to work on the Measure we were presented with," he told Synod.

"When we get to the stage of how we implement this, that is clearly [going to be] very fruitful. Some in the group did have some knowledge from their own personal experience of good practice and clearly we do have much to learn about that."

When asked by one Synod member about what would happen if a bishop decided not to follow the guidelines as a matter of conscience, Bishop Stock iterated that they could face disciplinary action.

"If [the Code of Practice] is working then it should not be a question of it being enforced. No one wants to get to that position," he said.

"Everyone would wish to try and act according to the Code once it is in place but [disciplinary action] is ultimately what could happen.

"People could say 'well, one small parish isn't going to do that'. Possibly not, but one test case is all you need and I don't think anybody wants to get there, or should want to.

"A bishop following his conscience, it's a matter of law not conscience. You might have some difficulty with that one … you could end up in the high court."

After this week's debate, the legislation will go to vote in the General Synod in York in July. If it is approved, the implementation of the Code of Practice will have to be formalised. It is expected that the Church of England's first female bishop will not be consecrated before 2014.

Bishop Stock said he hoped there would be opportunity in the future for further "creative discussion" on the legislation.

"What I fear is a church where we set up a situation where we don't sit in the same room and talk to each other," he said.

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