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The Bishop of Guildford comments on the latest General Synod

Date: 12 July 2012
On Monday 9 July in York
you will have heard that the General Synod adjourned its crucial debate on the ordination of women to the episcopate until November. What does this mean?

 

At the May meeting of the House of Bishops we (that is the Bishops of the General Synod – a number of elected suffragan bishops and all the diocesan bishops) made two amendments to the draft already accepted by a large majority of the Diocesan Synods of the Church of England, including of course our own.

 

The bishops have the right and the duty as bishops to send to General Synod a Measure touching on the doctrine or worship of the Church in the final form the House of Bishops approves. No one disputes that theological right – it is part of what bishops are for as guardians of the doctrine of the Church.

 

But there was some anger at the time because the General Synod in February had passed a resolution urging the bishops to be sparing in any amendments. The General Synod did not ask the House of Bishops for no amendments but it did clearly request no substantial amendments.

 

The bishops did not believe that they were making substantial changes and the changes they made were intended and designed to secure sufficient majorities in the three houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity for the Measure itself to pass at final stage.

 

As a matter of fact the bishops rejected a number of amendments and accepted only two. One amendment is not contentious and has been generally welcomed. Neither of the two amendments were judged to be legally substantial but one of them has been perceived to have changed things substantially, whatever the legalities.

 

This has been felt strongly by senior women clergy in the Church and by many others. There is now no point in arguing the technicalities. The point of the adjournment in York is to give the bishops space – in consultation with others – to consider either withdrawal of what has undoubtedly proved to be a contentious amendment or to consider modifying it or to return it unchanged to Synod.

 

So much for what has actually happened. To say what will now happen is more difficult. But I do want to say that the tone of the General Synod was genuinely good. People on all sides seemed to be looking for the right way forward and acknowledging that the Church of England will have women bishops, and relatively soon.

 

Compared with acrimonious and very difficult debates in the General Synod only a few years ago, a number of members of General Synod commented to me on the generally irenic feel. This does not mean it was not stressful. It was indeed. The atmosphere (compounded by the weather) felt a little like waiting for a thunderstorm.

 

Nevertheless, when people spoke they spoke with clarity and charity. There was, after all, no bishop bashing – in any case bishops need to be able to take criticism!

 

People on all sides were thinking on the day following, when the Synod ended, of how near we are to getting an agreement which will do two things. First, to make clear that the Church of England will undoubtedly ordain women bishops without reservation. But second, to say that those who disagree with this in conscience are still loved and respected and loyal members of the Church. This will entail an agreement with some compromise on all sides. In fact, compromises have already been made on both sides and these need recognising because they come from generosity.

 

I have already been in touch by email with a number of people I have had conversations with and am genuinely hopeful the bishops will, in the end be able to find a way forward which sufficient majorities can support - two-thirds of the bishops and elected clergy and laity of the Church voting separately.

 

Continue to pray, not least for all on the General Synod and for all those now talking quietly to see if there is a way forward. Remember your own synod representatives from this diocese and of course, please also pray for me, your bishop, with Bishop Ian, as we represent you in all your diversity, to have to carry both the joy of your witness to the Gospel, your loyalty to the Church, and sometimes, your honest disagreement. One task for a bishop is to try to help all within their charge to recognise the face of Jesus Christ in the other, including the other you disagree with.

 

Bearing this in mind it is now time for the final effort to secure agreement so that the Church can joyfully accept the fullness of women’s ministry in the Church but also go on to its primary task of living and proclaiming the Kingdom of God and the good news of the Gospel to every creature.

 

No one on any side of this debate wants to go on for ever arguing about this. Let us pray that in November we may go forward in a way which respects the minority but rejoices in an extended and developed ministry of women as bishops.

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