Why are the amendments the bishops have made to the women bishops legislation a problem?
Personally, I can accept the technical point about the delegation/derivation of Episcopal authority. I don’t think it says anything new, but if it clarifies the position helpfully for some people then fair enough. (The point – for those of you fortunate enough not to have been following this debate in detail – is that whilst any assistant bishops only legally act in a diocese because of delegation from the diocesan bishop, the ‘bishopyness’ of their actions comes not from that delegation but from their own consecration as bishops. If that was news to you, then you may have found this clarification helpful.)
The problem is the other amendment. This says that the bishops and priests to be selected to minister in parishes that won’t accept a woman (or a man who ordains women) must be people who will exercise their ministry in accordance with the theological convictions about women of the parish concerned.
Now, on the face of it this seems sensible enough: don’t give a conservative evangelical bishop to a high anglo-catholic parish, and vice versa. And some of the bishops (such as Pete Broadbent, on his blog earlier this week) are saying that is precisely what was intended. If so, they have made a very bad job of drafting a piece of law to give effect to that intention. It is a hard thing to put into law – that’s precisely why the legislative groups that have worked so hard on this legislation rejected it. If you can't define something, don't write it into the statute books.
What the amendment actually says is that any theological conviction about women will be supported, with priests and bishops ordained specially for it. It seems clear that the point of this is to ensure that parishes that want a man who has never ordained a woman or (in some circles) had anything to do with ordained women, get what they want. This is bad enough, as it means the theology that women taint men (see 'The Female Ick Factor' blog post below) gets legal backing.
But the amendment is even worse than this, as it is so loosely drawn. There is no legal definition of what might be the limits of valid theological convictions about women. Synod has said in the past that those who dissent from women’s ordination may be considered loyal Anglicans, but this amendment goes far beyond that. It doesn’t say that if you dissent from women’s ordination you will be provided for – the legislation already said that. This says that whatever your particular views about women, however offensive, the hierarchy will support you in the consequent discrimination. They will even try (according to the archbishops’ notes to their press release) to make sure that they can keep a supply of special bishops on hand for ever to make sure this discrimination is fostered.
Why does this matter? Because if we pass this amended legislation, we will be asking Parliament to enshrine in English law that the established church will support any views about discrimination against women.
This goes far beyond the Act of Synod (the hastily bolted-on amendment the bishops made to the women priests legislation in 1992, which set up the concept of 'Flying Bishops'). That was presented at the time as kind, generous, pastoral provision for those who couldn’t in conscience accept the ordination of women – and has since been used to set up as close to an alternative church as possible. It is hard to imagine this amendment not being used in the same way, whatever the bishops say now.
But even the Act of Synod never said that you could choose your own alternative bishop based on whether they agreed with you. If you felt you needed a male priest or bishop, that would be respected. That is what the unamended legislation we had until this week said too.
Now the bishops seem to want to create a pick-your-own-bishop market.
The church is used to living with disagreement. What we don’t do is write it into our laws. At the height of the Arian controversy in the early church, or in the Reformation debates in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people managed with the bishop they had, even when they disagreed with him about virtually everything. Do we really want to say that the ordination of women is the most divisive issue we have ever faced as a church? That women are so uniquely problematic that on this issue, and this issue only, people are free to choose an alternative bishop who fully supports their views? Correction – people who disagree with the ordination of women are free to choose a bishop who fully supports their views.
The church needs to repent of its long history of treating women as a second-class creation.
We need to recognise that enshrining discrimination in church laws makes us complicit in creating a climate in which it is OK to treat women as less valuable than men.
Before this week, all the debate was about whether or not this legislation would get passed in July. What the bishops have done means that either outcome is a depressing prospect.