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The General Synod vote on women bishops – no apathy here!

The General Synod vote on women bishops – no apathy here!

🕔20.Nov 2012

In his November diocesan letter the Bishop of Birmingham, David Urquhart – or +David Birmingham, as he signs himself – compared the two electorates who this month had “the opportunity to exercise their democratic freedom”: one to elect the West Midlands’ first Police and Crime Commissioner, the other to decide, in London this Tuesday, whether the Church of England will allow women to become bishops –

“In the first case the electorate is in the hundreds of thousands, most of whom are unlikely to exercise their vote.” Well, he was dead right there – also, incidentally, quite open about whom he’d vote for. “In the second, the electorate is a few hundred gathered in one place, and almost certainly each one will decide whether to vote yes or no or register an abstention.” In short, a near 100% turnout, and you don’t see many of those nowadays in this little corner of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Police Commissioners, ministers assured us, would be the most radical police reform since Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829 – which, even before last Thursday’s anticlimactic elections, seemed debatable. For the Anglican Church, though, surely women bishops, overturning 2,000 years of exclusively male leadership, really would constitute revolutionary change?

To which the answer is yes – and no. Yes, if you mean the Church of England, whose General Synod or legislative body is gathering in London this week. For them, women bishops would indeed change their world, fundamentally and irrevocably. But no, if you remember that that body, representing the two Convocations of Canterbury and York, is but one of 36 autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion, each with its own governing structure. For nearly half of the 36 have already removed all barriers to women bishops – including the Anglican Churches of Australia and New Zealand, the Episcopal Church of the US, and, closer to home, the Scottish Episcopal Church, in a kind of practice run for independence.

My interest in these matters is simply that of a detached and bemused observer, but I’m constantly struck by how any contextualising of the Church of England, either geographical or historical, serves to emphasise the literal parochialism – in both senses of the word – of the contemporary Church and its divisive, self-absorbing concerns. While the thousand-plus clergy who signed today’s letter to The Independent are still putting the biblical case for the ordination of women and therefore logically their ordination as bishops, other members of the same Church have been getting on with it, for decades.

It’s over 200 years since the Primitive Methodist Church allowed women ministers; nearly 150 since the founding of the Salvation Army, with its principle of ordaining both men and women; nearly 100 since the Church of England appointed female lay readers, known as ‘bishops’ messengers’, and then stopped doing so after men returned from the War; and nearly 40 years since the General Synod itself passed a motion in 1975 affirming there were no fundamental objections to women’s ordination. And that’s quite apart from what other bits of the Communion have been getting up to in the US, Canada, parts of Africa and elsewhere.

But it’s the General Synod we’re concerned with here – and, with my nerdy interest in anything vaguely electoral, I thought I’d try to understand just what would be happening on Tuesday, and why, when I thought the women bishops issue had effectively been settled back in 2008, it demonstrably hadn’t been.

First, then, a few facts and figures. The General Synod comprises roughly 469 members, divided into three Houses: Bishops, Clergy and Laity. The House of Bishops is the smallest and most straightforward: all 44 diocesan bishops plus the Bishop of Dover, who’s effectively the diocesan bishop for Canterbury, and 7 suffragan (assistant) bishops, elected by all suffragan bishops. Total 52. Birmingham has two: the Bishop of Birmingham and suffragan Bishop Andrew Watson of Aston.

The main body of the House of Clergy are 184 clergy elected by the licensed clergy (those called ‘Minister’, as well as the ordained ‘Reverends’) from the 44 dioceses, according to size. There are also cathedral deans and representatives of the armed forces, religious communities and, I’m comforted to know, universities. Total 202.

The three from Birmingham Diocese are the Revd Catherine Grylls, Vicar of St Mary & St Ambrose, Edgbaston and St Paul’s, Balsall Heath; the Revd Canon Nigel Hand, from the Cathedral; and the Ven Hayward Osborne, Archdeacon of Birmingham – usually described as ‘the Bishop’s eyes and ears in the parish’, and our version of Simon McBurney’s smooth and creepy Archdeacon Robert in the BBC2 sitcom ‘Rev’.

The House of Laity has 215 members, again mainly elected from the dioceses by the lay members of deanery synods: localised General Synods, whose own lay members are representatives elected by their Parochial Church Councils. Last week’s Police Commissioner candidates might be interested that House of Laity elections are by Single Transferable Vote, rather than the much less voter-friendly Supplementary Vote, and also that candidates can have a short election address delivered to every elector by the presiding officer.

Returning to women bishops, the 1975 motion referred to above, together with another, inviting the House of Bishops to bring forward proposals to remove the legal and other barriers to the ordination of women, would have been passed by majority votes of the whole General Synod.

In the event, it was the then Bishop of Birmingham, Dr Hugh Montefiore, who in 1978 moved the motion to remove the legal barriers to the ordination of women both as priests and bishops. It was defeated in the House of Clergy, but eventually, in 1984, a motion to bring forward legislation permitting the ordination of women priests was carried by majorities in all three Houses: Bishops 41-6, Clergy 131-98, Laity 135-79.

At this distance in time, these detailed figures are interesting for one feature only: the size of the three majorities. There are two main types of Synod votes: those requiring three House majorities (50%+1) and an overall majority, and the really vital ones, which must have two-thirds majorities (66.7%) in all three Houses. The 1984 vote, for legislation to be merely brought forward, was the former type – fortunately, given that the Laity’s majority was only 63%.

The vital vote in that chapter of this protracted saga, to give final approval to the legislation, came fractionally over 20 years ago, on Armistice Day 1992, and it needed majorities in all three Houses. Two decades on, with over 5,000 women ordained since 1994 and now constituting some 40% of all clergy, there’s a temptation to wonder what all the fuss was about. The actual figures, however, were genuinely knife-edge. If two Laity votes, or one Clergy vote, or one Bishop vote had gone the other way, the Noes would have had it.

This time some things are very different, but there are also similarities. The equivalent to the 1984 vote on women priests was in York in 2008, when the figures were: Bishops 28-12, Clergy 124-44, Laity 111-68. As before, the 62% Laity majority didn’t matter, for only an overall majority was needed. Now it does matter.

Both the Bishops’ and Clergy votes are more secure than in 1992, and 42 of the 44 Dioceses have voted in favour, led by Birmingham’s 75-4, with 4 abstentions: Bishops 2-0, Clergy 39-1, Laity 34-3. There’s no doubting the overall view within the Church, but it’s not an opinion poll and the General Synod laity are traditionally more conservative than their diocesan counterparts.

The main arguments, as they were in 2008 and have been ever since, will be about the acceptability – to both sides – of the arrangements for those implacably opposed to women bishops. They’ll be argued with a passion that Home Office ministers last week would have almost killed for, and that I can’t begin to comprehend. I’ll certainly be watching for the results, though.

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