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Women Bishops

Volume 553: debated on Thursday 22 November 2012

(Urgent Question): Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner make a statement on this week’s decision by the General Synod on women bishops?

Yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury made it clear at the General Synod of the Church of England that the Church of England could not afford to “hang about” over the issue of women bishops and observed starkly that

“every day that we fail to resolve this issue…is a day when our credibility in the public eye is likely to diminish”.

Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham and the next Archbishop of Canterbury, said:

“The Church has voted overwhelmingly in favour of the principle. It is a question of finding a way that…is the right way forward.”

It is important for the House to recognise that there is overwhelming support in the Church of England for women bishops to be consecrated. The draft Measure rejected earlier this week was supported by clear majorities in 42 of the 44 dioceses in England. As I have repeatedly said, it is impossible for me to explain to parliamentary colleagues how a Measure that has had the clear support of 42 out of 44 dioceses failed to pass in the General Synod. Let us take all the votes passed in the General Synod: 324 members voted for women bishops, and 122 against; 94% of the bishops who voted on Tuesday supported the Measure, as did 77% of the House of Clergy; and even in the House of Laity, 64% were in favour. The Measure was lost by a handful of votes among the laity, because for the Measure to pass it had to clear the hurdle of a two-thirds majority in each House of the General Synod.

Speaking for the whole House, I am sure, my right hon. Friend and fellow Church Commissioner, the Prime Minister, made it clear to the House yesterday that the

“Church needs to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme”—[Official Report, 21 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 579.]

He observed that the Church of England needed a “sharp prod”.

I appreciate that frustrations exist in the House on this matter—a frustration that I share—and I think that the following needs to be understood. First, this is not an issue that can in any way be parked for the next couple of years or so, while we await another round of Synod elections. It must be understood that this issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible. I hope that it will be convenient for the House if I seek to arrange a meeting in the near future for concerned Members, together with the Bishop of Durham, the archbishop-designate, to explore how this matter can be resolved as speedily as possible.

There have been some suggestions in the press that it is impossible for the Church of England or General Synod to return to this issue until after a new General Synod has been elected in 2015. That is not correct: the rules prevent the same Measure from being reconsidered by the General Synod without a special procedure. It is perfectly possible for a different and amended Measure to consecrate women bishops to be considered by the General Synod. Although this is for the Church of England to resolve, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, I suspect that there will also be those in the Church of England who will wish to consider whether the election process to the General Synod is sufficiently representative, particularly of the laity of the Church of England, as Tuesday’s vote clearly did not reflect the overall and clear consensus of dioceses across England in support of women bishops.

It is my earnest hope that during the time I serve the Queen—whose appointment I am—this House and the Church of England as Second Church Estates Commissioner it will prove possible for me to bring before this House a Measure that will enable women to be consecrated bishops in the Church of England.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response to the urgent question, and I know that he is as disappointed as I am at having to speak on this matter today. May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Floor of the House today?

It appears to me and many others that the theological arguments over women priests—and therefore their position in roles of authority—were settled 20 years ago in the Church of England. The next natural step, on which I think there is agreement across the House, is to see some of the excellent ordained women priests now move into positions of leadership in our Church as bishops. Just as discrimination in the wider community is wrong, as it keeps the talents and abilities of all from flourishing, so it is important in the established Church that the talents, experience and skills of both men and women are used and that the Church is led by the very best, not just those who happen to be male. There should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our Church.

The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve and made to look outdated, irrelevant and frankly eccentric by this decision. It appears that a broad Church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds, but as the hon. Gentleman said, the vast majority of members of the Church want to see women bishops. He set out clearly the votes that were cast at both diocesan and General Synod level. I was pleased to hear him say that there are questions to be asked about the convoluted decision-making structure in the Church, and in particular about the representative nature of the House of Laity, and whether an overhaul of the electoral system needs to be considered. The decision made by an unrepresentative minority in the House of Laity means that this essential modernisation of the Church of England has potentially been put back for another five years or more, with no guarantee of progress even then.

In fact, I think positions will become even more difficult. Many campaigners felt that they had offered concessions to accommodate those of different views and will perhaps now take a much less conciliatory approach, as they feel that the concessions have been ignored, with no willingness to compromise. As the Church of England is part of the constitutional settlement of this country, it is important that Parliament has regard to what the decision means for the country and the Church’s role in law making. With the decision made, we now see the entrenchment of the discriminatory nature of the 26 places in the upper House reserved for Bishops, who can only be male. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this cannot be right, and that Parliament and the Government have to consider what we should do, especially in light of the Government’s decision to abandon any wider reform of the Lords? Does he further agree that we must also consider whether the exemption from equalities legislation for the Church of England now needs to be re-examined?

Finally, I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s resolve on the need to sort this out as soon as possible, as well as what the Archbishop of Canterbury said. I understand that there will be moves by the Church to spend some time thinking about how to proceed, but it is imperative that those in the all-male group of bishops do not talk just to one another, but work with and alongside senior women in the Church to find a way forward. Unlike the Prime Minister, I think Parliament has a role to play and should now look at doing all it can to support the Church at this time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees.

I agree with almost all that the hon. Lady said. The really important point is that the whole House wants the Church of England to get on with this matter. It cannot be parked, and work needs to be done urgently to try to ensure that it is resolved as quickly as possible. In fairness, the House of Bishops gave the greatest possible leadership in the General Synod. However, as I sat there, the analogy that struck me was that it was a bit like Government Whips trying to talk to the Eurosceptics; there were those in the General Synod who, whatever the bishops said to them, were just not going to listen. So, in fairness, the House of Bishops in an episcopal-led Church was very clear about the need to make change. Those bishops work every day with women clergy in their dioceses and see the fantastic work that they are doing in the Church of England. That work must be valued and cherished, and we need to ensure that any changes do not square the circle by bringing forth proposals for women bishops who would be second-class bishops. I have made it clear to the General Synod on a number of occasions that Parliament simply would not approve any Measure that introduced women bishops as second-class bishops.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the whole House has sympathy with his position and great respect for the hard work that he has done in trying to resolve this matter. Does he agree that when the decision-making body of the established Church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society that it represents, its position as the established Church must be called into question?

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly good point, and it is one that I have repeatedly made. As a consequence of the decision by the General Synod, the Church of England no longer looks like a national Church; it simply looks like a sect, like any other sect. If it wishes to be a national Church that reflects the nation, it has to reflect the values of the nation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for doing a wonderful, and rather thankless, job on this issue over the years on behalf of parliamentarians. He was at the very stormy meeting yesterday between parliamentarians and the bishops. Peers and MPs of all parties were saying with one voice that if the Church does not get on and do this, Parliament will. Will he therefore convene an emergency meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee, so that we can take legal advice as to what Parliament can do to help the Church to achieve the will of the people in the Church?

It was because of yesterday’s meeting, and because I am conscious of the concerns being expressed on both sides of the House, that I would like to convene a meeting with the archbishop-designate. Justin Welby has great leadership skills, and it is he who will have to lead the Church of England in this matter. He needs to hear the voices from the House of Lords and the House of Commons that were heard in that meeting yesterday. We need to funnel our energies into helping him to resolve the matter.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Can we all send our support, love and concern to all women who are ordained or hope to be ordained in the Church—including your chaplain, Mr Speaker, and all others? They must feel even more frustrated than we do, but we are not going to let them down. Given that, over the past 20 years, the Church has managed to sort out how parishes that did not want women priests could be looked after, does the Second Church Estates Commissioner not agree that it must be possible to resolve this issue? Will he invite the Minister for Women and Equalities to offer the services of the Government, not to tell the Church what to do but to offer it professional advice on how to deliver what the majority want, as soon as possible?

I am sure that it must be possible to resolve this issue. The important thing is to continue to work at it until it is resolved. An increasing number of ordinands coming into the Church are women, and we need to have a Church in which everyone is valued. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is correct is saying that, at present, a number of women out there in the clergy are feeling undervalued. That is wrong; they are very much valued and cherished, and there needs to be a full place for them in our national Church.

Since I was ordained as a priest in the Church of England 25 years ago, women have become vicars, rectors, deans, rural deans and even archdeacons, so it is ludicrous that they cannot now become bishops. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we will have no truck with more concessions to the hard-liners who want to make women second-rate bishops. We need to speed this up. Would it not make sense to have a moratorium on the appointment of any more male bishops until there could also be women bishops—no nomination without feminisation?

Of course, we could have done that if the Prime Minister still had control over the appointment of bishops.

It was of course the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as Prime Minister who, without any proper consultation, renounced the ability of Downing street to have any influence over the control of bishops. I am encouraged by the suggestions from Labour Members that the Prime Minister should take back the power to appoint bishops, but I suspect that might create a few problems. I think everyone will have heard the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

I think my hon. Friend was wrong in what he said about the Eurosceptics, because the Eurosceptics happen to be right. The important point, which I hope he will accept, is that it is not for this House to say how the established Church is run. We may well have our own opinion, but it is a very dangerous thing for the House of Commons to tell the established Church how to run itself.

I say, in all friendship to my hon. Friend, that as I sat through the debates in General Synod, it struck me that the Eurosceptics and the conservative evangelicals had quite a lot in common in their approach. Nevertheless, he makes a serious point on which the House should reflect. Since 1919, it has been the convention that although Parliament has the ultimate control over the Church of England—it is an established Church, after all, and the Book of Common Prayer is but an annexe to the Act of Uniformity—the Church of England comes forward with its Measures, and if they are passed by the Church of England they will be approved or otherwise by Parliament. I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that if the Church of England is a national Church and an established Church, it is right and proper for Parliament to make clear its views and opinions to the Church of England and for the Church of England to hear what Parliament is saying.

I am not involved with the Church of England and I am a lifelong non-believer, but I want to say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly admire for the stance he has taken, that it is simply impossible to understand how on earth it can be argued that if women are considered appropriate to be deacons and priests, as they have been in the last 20 years, they are not worthy to be bishops. It is simply impossible to understand that. Will the hon. Gentleman also accept that, for many of us, this opposition to women bishops bears comparison with the opposition 100 years ago to women having the right to vote and to sit in the House of Commons? It is an anti-women attitude—a feeling that women have no place in public life, in religion or in politics—that I find contemptible.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fairness, if he reads the comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday, he will find that the archbishop said exactly the same as him—that it is intolerable to have a situation where women can be priests, deacons, archdeacons and deans, yet not be bishops. In his own way, the hon. Gentleman is saying almost exactly the same as the Archbishop of Canterbury about this intolerable situation.

Probably not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and in disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I think that we are elected on a far more democratic basis than the House of Laity.

I believe that there is very strong support for this Measure both in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). We share the most extraordinary Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, in the shape of the Rev. June Osborne. May we please urge the bishops to adopt the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Rhondda of a moratorium? It is in their control. They could do it themselves. I know that it would be a complicated process, but it would be less complicated than the fiendish voting structure that we saw yesterday.

If you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, may I add that my heart goes out to those women who will be standing up on Sunday and doing, in many cases, a superior job of bringing people to God and bringing the comfort of Christianity to their constituents? This is disgraceful. Please could we all share in some sort of message of support? There will be change. We are behind this change. It has to happen.

I am sure that women throughout the Church will have heard the encouraging comments of my hon. Friend, and those of, I think, every other Member who has spoken so far.

I joined the Movement for the Ordination of Women in 1976, and I find it incredible that we are still having this argument 36 years later. I am very pleased that the Second Church Estates Commissioner understands our feelings about the urgent need for this Measure.

May I suggest that too many concessions have been made to those who are opposed to women priests? That is what has given them hope, and it is why they have continued to fight. It is simply unjust to do that at the expense of women in the Church.

The hon. Lady’s comments demonstrate the difficulty of striking a balance between various groups in the Church of England, and trying to ensure that everyone feels that there is a continuing place for them in the Church. It has always been a broad Church, and as far as possible we want to keep everyone in that broad Church. However, I assure the hon. Lady that I know, and the House has made very clear, that Parliament simply would not pass a Measure that discriminated against women, squaring the circle by trying to make them bishops but second-class bishops. Everyone has to understand that.

I think it important for Parliament to express a view, but I also think that it would be better for us to pass a short Bill requiring female bishops. We need to put the Church out of its agony, and to end the antiquated voting system to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is nothing new about female bishops? There is a 9th-century mosaic in a Roman basilica showing two saints, who are named, the Virgin Mary, and a fourth woman who is clearly described as Bishop Theodora: Theodora Episcopa. She was a female bishop. The Church has had them in the past.

The occasions in the past when Parliament and the Church of England have gone head to head on matters of worship and doctrine—there were disputes about the prayer book in the late 1920s, for instance—are not happy precedents. I think it important for the Church of England to listen very carefully to what Parliament is saying. Although, in my view, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say yesterday that the Church needed a “sharp prod”, I hope and believe that Parliament will give it time to sort itself out and get on with the issue, and I assure the House that we will do so as speedily as possible.

Speaking as one who is part of the wider Anglican communion, I am profoundly saddened and disappointed by the Church of England’s failure to make progress on the role of women in spiritual and public life. It leaves us with the continuing anomaly that seats for bishops in the other place are available exclusively to men. I simply do not believe that that is sustainable in a modern democracy. Does the Commissioner believe that we might, in fact, be doing the Church a favour by seeking to review its constitutional status?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to remind us that the Church of England is part of a wider Anglican communion, and that the whole of the Anglican communion will be looking at how the Church of England conducts itself. I agree with the comments that have been made about the Church reflecting, and I think that everyone in it needs to reflect on how out of touch it now appears to Parliament—to every part and every corner of the House of Commons.

I pay tribute to the many women in my constituency who take part in the formal and informal structures of the Church. They are very important to rural life, and I know that my bishop—Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath and Wells—deeply appreciates the contribution of his large female work force.

I agree with what has been said about women on boards. Might the hon. Gentleman be able to explain to newer Members why this particular Church does not have to observe equalities legislation?

May I correct a point that seems to be getting some coinage? The Church of England does not enjoy any particular exemption from sex equality legislation. Obviously, equalities legislation is entirely a matter for this House, but the legislation that applies to the Church of England applies to all faith groups in this country. If Parliament were to seek to change the legislation, it would apply to every faith group. That is clearly a matter for the House.

The bishops sit in the House of Lords on the basis of a moral authority, and they vote on a range of issues, including equalities legislation. It is now clear that the views of the established Church do not reflect the views of the British people, so is it not time that the bishops left the House of Lords? Is not the real problem that the Church of England is entitled, by right, to places in an unreformed, unaccountable and unelected House of Lords?

I think it is rather tough that a number of people are taking out their frustration on the bishops, because the bishops gave clear leadership, with almost every single bishop who spoke and voted indicating that they want to have women bishops. They, too, are very keen to ensure that they are joined in the House of Lords by women bishops. There could be no clearer leadership in the Church than that given by the bishops of the Church of England on the fact that they want to have women bishops.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and agree wholly with what he was saying, and I particularly welcome the opportunity of parliamentarians meeting the archbishop-designate. May I link two points that my hon. Friend made? Speaking as a Eurosceptic and as someone who has stood, unsuccessfully, for election to the House of Laity, may I suggest to him that the House of Laity is about as representative of opinion in the pews as the European Parliament is of constituents? May I also urge him to move forward as quickly as possible with a review of the electoral arrangements for the House of Laity?

It was my mistake for wandering down the route of commenting about Eurosceptics. One thing that we were enjoined to do in the General Synod was live in amity with all our colleagues, so I hope that I can always do that. My hon. Friend is correct in saying that a number of questions will continue to be asked about the arrangements for electing the General Synod, because we simply cannot have a situation where 42 out of 44 dioceses vote overwhelmingly for women bishops and that simply is not reflected in the vote in the General Synod and the House of Laity—that is simply unsustainable.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on all his work on this matter and thank him for it. I also wish to echo the sentiments that so many hon. Members have expressed about the contribution that women in the Church make in all our constituencies. Does he agree that the reaction that this has caused in the population as a whole, including on Twitter and in social media, has shown how important this issue is to the nation and how important it is that Parliament acts? I include in that the petition that has been started to raise the question as to whether there should be an automatic right for bishops to sit in the House of Lords if there are no women bishops.

The hon. Lady clearly demonstrates that the Church of England has to be a national Church. It is the Church of the Remembrance day services, it is the Church of the coronation and it is the Church of which the Queen is head as Head of State and Head of the Church. One of the first things the Queen did during her jubilee celebrations was attend a meeting at Lambeth palace that was attended by all faith groups. What was very moving was that all those faith groups said that they felt confident in freedom of religion for them because of the role of the Church of England as the national Church. So the Church of England, as a national Church, is failing the whole nation and other faith groups if it does not reflect our national character.

May I say, Mr Speaker, how much many of us supported the robust comments your Chaplain made in the media after this announcement was made? My oldest friend is due to be ordained in 2014, and the Church will be lucky to have her, as she is someone of huge talent. Surely the Church sees that it will not attract women of that calibre if they see that they will not be able to pursue the full extent of their talents.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We are very fortunate to have attracted into the Church over the past 20 years many women of extraordinary talent, leadership, skill and commitment. Indeed, the Church of England would not manage without their skill, leadership and commitment. We need to be able to continue to recruit people of that high calibre and I hope that we will continue to do so.

We are also all extremely fortunate in our Chaplain and I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) for what she said.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and many people will appreciate the way in which he has put them. It is clearly unsustainable for us to have an all-male episcopate. Does he agree that the decision sadly risks damaging the reputation of the Church in the eyes of many of our constituents? Will he consider working with the business managers to find a way for this House to express its will and send a clear, unanimous and courteous message to the General Synod that it needs to think again?

I shall certainly reflect on that interesting suggestion with the business managers and the Clerks.

Given that a significant minority in the House of Laity have spoken and said that women are not competent to be bishops, will my hon. Friend, alongside me, call on that significant minority to launch an urgent review into the competence of its own head of the Church of England?

Those who voted against women bishops at General Synod did so because of their own particular theological convictions. While acknowledging those theological convictions, the Church now needs to find a way to move forward as speedily as possible to ensure that women can be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my sadness and that of many other people that the Church has made itself appear so out of touch and anachronistic in its decision making? The head of the Church of England is a woman, but in the 21st century we cannot have women bishops.

I agree. It is a great sadness. I suspect that every right hon. and hon. Member has recently had representations from Church members on same-sex marriage. If the Church of England thinks that Parliament will listen to it with considerable attention on moral issues such as same-sex marriage and so on when the Church of England seems to be so out of step on other issues of concern to Parliament, it is simply deluding itself.

I must declare an interest in that my sister is a vicar in the Church of England in your constituency, Mr Speaker, and I personally own the living of a parish in Oxfordshire. Does my hon. Friend think that if Mrs Proudie had been the bishop rather than her husband, Obadiah Slope would have had a rather different career path?

I suspect, Mr Speaker, that that is true. It is reassuring to discover that there are still Members of this House who own livings of parishes in the Church of England.

I caution my hon. Friend about comparisons between the EU and the Church of England, as the EU forces people to vote and vote again until it gets the result it wants. Clearly, the Church of England has shown itself to be completely out of touch with the views not only of Parliament but of the country at large. Is it not time now for the General Synod to review its whole decision-making process so that it can reflect the wishes of its members?

The General Synod will have to reflect on the comments made by my hon. Friend and others about its effectiveness, about how it is elected and about whether it represents members of the Church of England, the broader community and society as a whole. Historically and even today, church wardens have been elected by the whole community because there is recognition that in every parish church wardens represent the community as a whole. We will have to consider how the laity elected to the General Synod can reflect the broadest range of society—certainly among those who are members of the Church of England and perhaps among the community as a whole. I am quite sure that will be reviewed in the coming months.

As a Church of England believer, I have never understood how a woman can be head of the Church yet somehow women cannot be bishops. I urge that we consider bringing in a short Bill ordering that women should be able to be bishops in the Church of England.

In the General Synod debate, part of which I sat through, there were some who argued that it was impossible for women to have headship, and I just could not understand how they sought to reconcile that with the fact that Parliament has made the Queen defender of the faith and that we are fortunate enough to have her not only as Head of State, but as head of the Church.

This week’s decision reflects very badly on the Church, but also very unfairly; the Church, after all, is all the people who are part of it, not just one legislative committee. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that, given that a large majority of them have shown that they are as keen to have women bishops as we in this House are, the problem lies not with the members of the Church of England, but with the paralysis of its decision-making structures?

My hon. Friend is right to remind us at the end of these questions that the overwhelming majority of members of the Church of England want women bishops. It is now beholden on us all, whether in the Church of England or outside, to try to ensure that happens as speedily as possible.