So, the King’s Great Matter has come before the Lords and Commons assembled! We can’t help it, but there are certain points at which the Church of England’s ‘Established’ role means we get mixed up with Parliament, the Queen, and the Government. This week is such a time, because if we are to have women Bishops, then we have to have the assent of Parliament. Yes, of course it’s bonkers to anyone from a non-English or non-Anglican background. But now the Lords and Commons have had their say, the Synod can, at last, sign on the dotted line – which we will do on 17 November. This post takes a look at what Parliament actually said about the principle, and about the personality-led rush to get the first women in episcopal orders.
The history is not always comfortable.
The Synodical car-crash in November 2012 (my reports here) led to threats from WATCH-minded MPs that Parliament would intervene unless the Church sorted this out. And the Prime Minister was heard to say that we needed ‘get with the programme’. And so the age-old question about the Christian Church’s loyalties to the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than the kingdoms of this world, arises.
In the 1920s, there was a major crisis when the Church (or at least, enough bits of it to try it on) wanted to revise the Book of Common Prayer. That required Parliament’s assent. But after much lobbying and partisan speechifying (largely by the more Protestant-minded MPs), Parliament threw out the revised Prayer Book. That upset Catholic-minded Anglicans who could only bear State influence on the Church if it didn’t actually do any influencing. And it did the Evangelical end no good: they were seen as obstructive and bowing the knee to the secular authorities. It didn’t help that many of the opposing speeches were made by non-Anglicans – it was a kind of Ecclesiastical West Lothian Question (EWLQ). And in the end the Bishops authorised ‘The ‘Prayer Book as proposed in 1928’ anyway!
Stained-glass ceilings and ordainable potatoes
What did MPs actually say? There’s a verbatim report here. These are my high- (and low-) lights:
Sir Tony Baldry (Con, Banbury) introduced the debate in his role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, the MP who speaks for the Commissioners in Parliament. He reminded the House of a warning he gave four years ago: “…as I said in a speech to General Synod in 2010, shortly after I was appointed Second Church Estates Commissioner, the Church of England could have women bishops or not have women bishops, but one thing Parliament would not tolerate was any suggestion of second-class women bishops”. I remember hearing that in my pre-blog days and being immensely cheered up by it.
It was all beautifully stage-managed, I suspect. There were references to the ‘stained-glass ceiling’; to warm support from the Free Churches; to concerns about Forward in Faith and the prospects for relationships with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Inevitably, there was some grandstanding by MPs who just happen to have episcopal vacancies on their patch.
- The prize for putting in the first bid goes to Diana Johnston (Lab, Kingston-upon-Hull), though she was quickly followed by Sir Tony’s reference to the current vacancy at Oxford (his home turf) and Richard Graham (Con, Gloucester) mentioning the imminent vacancy there.
- Sarah Newton (Con, Truro and Falmouth) cryptically said “I can think of an excellent candidate who is sitting with us this evening and whom all of us would thoroughly recommend to be one of the earliest adopted new bishops.” Who could she mean? Possibly the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Commons, who always pops up in the Press’s lists or runners and riders to be the ‘first woman Bishop’. See my prayer notes below.
- I suppose one of our MPs might have mentioned Taunton if they were in the House and were called to speak – the post becomes vacant in April.
- Susan Elan Jones (Lab, Clwyd South) inadvertently raised the EWLQ, saying “You will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am not English, and I am also not much of a sports watcher. But in the words of a 1990s football song, what we are seeing is the English Church coming home, and we are all the richer for it.”.
- Helen Goodman (Lab, Bishop Auckland) gave a really interesting speech full of technical detail, Bible study, and her own mother’s experience of being prayed against when she stood up to speak in church.
- Sir Peter Bottomley (Con, Worthing West) and Ben Bradshaw (Lab, Exeter) spoke warmly of the pioneers in the Movement for the Ordination of Women and the work of WATCH.
- Several backbenchers spoke warmly about – and named – particular women clergy they knew in their constituencies
Possibly the most entertaining speech came from another Welsh MP, (EWLQ alert!) Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda), a former priest.
He began explosively: God, this has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? Sometimes, hymns suddenly seem relevant. A couple of weeks ago I sang the hymn “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year”, but in this case it seems to have been “decade succeeds to decade” or even “century succeeds to century”. Finally, however, God is working her purpose out.
He added pastoral concern to his humour. “But so many bruised hearts there have been. The former Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, has been mentioned. He once said that a woman was no more ordainable than a potato, yet he managed to rise to one of the highest offices in the Church—undoubtedly because of his tact, diplomacy and care for others. Seriously, though, we need to remember the bruised hearts of so many people.”
The full text of his speech is well worth a read. Go here and scroll down to 6.1 p.m.
What about the Lords?
Time does not permit me to reflect on the House of Lords debate, held the previous week. You can read Archbishop Justin’s speech here, and the full Hansard account here. There is clearly a Cunning Plan to fiddle about with the rules under which Bishops go into the House of Lords, to enable a fast-track to be set up so that women join men on the Bishops Bench more quickly than would otherwise happen.
This is probably a Good Thing, but although the archbishops and parliamentarians know about it, no-one else does. It has cross-party support, according to the Archbishop and Sir Tony, though there was a sharp intervention from Frank Field asking why such a Bill was not being dealt with straight away. Maybe the protocol is that General Synod ought to be told first.
What have we learned?
There is good news and bad news.
- In the current climate of mistrust of politicians, and the increasing pre-election lunacy, we ought to be grateful for those Parliamentarians who offered thoughtful comments in their speeches, not least those who were unafraid to wear their faith on their sleeve during debate.
- On the cautious side, though, I do worry about people’s simplistic approach to how women will actually be appointed when the time comes. They all seem to forget there is a discernment and nomination process that requires the diocese or the Crown Nominations Commission to sort out a role description first. Only then can they look at individuals who might meet that description. It’s not like politics. Or the X Factor. We believe in discerning God’s person for a post – and there is a process, immersed in prayer to help us do that.
We might spare a prayer for a number of prominent women in ministry, who – whether they feel called to episcopal ministry or not – are going to be the subject of endless speculation and profiles in the papers over the next few months.
- I can see the Daily Mail headlines now “IS THIS BRITAIN’S FIRST WOMAN BISHOP?” (which would be both unfair and inaccurate, other Anglican churches having got there first).
- Or, worse, “ENGLAND’S FIRST LADY BISHOP: SHE BUYS HER CLOTHES AT M&S”.
- They will also know they are being talked about in diocesan gossip parlours and synodical tea-rooms.
I am privileged to know some of these people reasonably well. They don’t deserve the treatment they may get which, however well-meaning, will embarrass them. So let’s pray for them in these next few months, that they may have extraordinary reserves of grace and resilience.
*Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965