Monday, 26 November 2012

Female bishops - is the Church of England for turning?

The Church of England is the "established" church in England.  It has the right to have 26 Bishops (including the two Archbishops) in Parliament - they sit in the House of Lords.  All Bishops are male and females may not be appointed.  An attempt in the Church of England's General Synod to reverse this was defeated on 20th November - see C of E statement.  The Synod is made up of the "Convocations of Canterbury and York", a house of bishops, a house of clergy to which is added a house of laity.  To change the position, a majority of two-thirds was required in each House.  It was the Laity which, by just 6 votes, rejected the proposal to have female Bishops.

The rejection of female bishops has upset many in the church and also, it appears, in Parliament - The Guardian 21st November.  Also, whilst the church has exemptions under equality law, the move is seen by many as perpetuating unacceptable discrimination.  An e-petition has been raised to try to get a debate in Parliament on the issue.

If things are left where they are, a fresh attempt to alter the law cannot be made in the Synod until 2015.  However, the church has a procedure which might be used to introduce new draft legislation - C of E statement.  An alternative is that Parliament itself acts to alter the law.  There is a constitutional convention that Parliament does not alter the law of the church unless the church agrees.  However, it is a convention and not strict law and so Parliament could act.  If it were to do so, much wider issues such  as disestablishing the church would undoubtedly arise.

The C of E has an interesting website with a considerable amount of legal information as to how church "measures" are enacted.  They are a form of legislation similar to Acts of Parliament and they have to be approved by Parliament and must receive Royal Assent.  HM the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England.  This role is historical - dating back to the reign of Henry VIII and the Act of Supremacy 1534.

It will be particularly interesting to see how this situation develops.

----- ooooooo -----

Reflections on Church and State - Law and Lawyers 28th April 2011

Failure to vote in women bishops risks 'constitutional crisis' in Church - Telegraph 26th November.

National Secular Society - Church of England's establishment is well past its sell-by date - 21st November.

National Secular Society - Church and State need to be set free - 22nd November


  1. If Parliament is going to interfere with the rights of religious organisations not to ordain or consecrate women it cannot - and this should be obvious - single out one sect or one religion.

    So are our political masters (that being a word of common gender) going to tell the Catholic Church, the orthodox Jews, the Muslims, that they must ordain women?

    I seem to hear a sound in the air . . . as of elephantine wings a-flapping. Come off it, people.

    Exclude the Bishops from the House of Lords? Now you are talking.

    1. Thank you Andrew for a fair point.

      I don't really see it particularly likely that Parliament will legislate of its own volition for the C of E to have female bishops. However, I do not doubt that Parliament could do so given the church's established status. (No other churches/religions/faiths in England are 'established' and I don't suppose that Parliament will want to take them on). The more likely result is that this matter will be left for the church itself to somehow resolve.

      The recently dropped House of Lords Reform Bill would have reduced the number of bishops to 12.

  2. In fact on further thought I hope Parliament does nothing at all - not even in respect of the Lords Spiritual, where they could. To be sure, if we were designing a Second Chamber from scratch we would not have them, but we are not. To take any step at all would be to take sides in what is essentially a question of theology and it would be good - and novel - to see Parliament accept that there are some things they don't know better about and that that is one of them. The Prayer Book vote in 1928 should warn them off.

    The fact is and remains that to some members of the Church a woman bishop is an ontological impossibility, a contradiction in terms, and that a woman purportedly consecrated as a bishop could not validly ordain a priest - male or female - so that men and women so ordained could not themselves become bishops; and so on. They see the consecration of a woman as an act of schism.

    That sits ill with the Zeitgeist, but that is just too bad. It's their Church of England too.