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Monday, May 21, 2012

The Sheep Unpicks The Worst Press Release Ever

The Church of England made a press release today which was really quite difficult to understand. Ruthie Gledhill dubbed it 'the worst-written press release since the Reformation'. I have had a go at translating it. It related to the House of Bishops meeting today which considered the legislation which, if implemented, will enable people who lack a Y chromosome to become bishops in the Church of England.

I include the text of the press release with my own comments / translation into commonly-spoken human English in blue italics.

NEWS from the Church of England
PR 62.1221/5/2012For immediate release

House of Bishops approves Women Bishops Legislation

The House of Bishops of the Church of England today concluded its consideration of the draft legislation to enable women to be consecrated as bishops. It agreed that the legislation should be returned to the General Synod for final approval.

I can understand this bit.

The House of Bishops had power to amend the draft legislation in such manner “as it thinks fit”. It made two amendments to the draft Measure.

A reminder that the Bishops could have done what they wanted to the legislation, but they have only made two amendments. The tone so far suggests they want to give the impression that they have substantively passed the legislation as it was presented to them.

The House accepted an amendment making it clear that the use of the word “delegation” (in Clause 2 of the draft Measure) relates to the legal authority which a male bishop acting under a diocesan scheme would have and was distinct from the authority to exercise the functions of the office of bishop that that person derived from his ordination.

This relates to powers given to a male bishop to act for parishes which will not recognise a female bishop. This is to make it clear that he is a proper, full bishop, with power to ordain in his own right, and not merely given the power to ordain as a secondary-level functionary of the diocesan bishop.

For example, when another bishop ordains someone to the priesthood he needs permission to do from the bishop of the diocese (“delegation”), but the power to ordain derives from his consecration as a bishop. The amendment also makes clear that delegation should not be taken as divesting the diocesan bishop of any of his or her authority or functions.

Yeah, what I said above, plus clarification that, in being empowered to ordain in this way, the male bishop acting under this arrangement is not taking any authority away from the diocesan bishop. Essentially, all this seems to be an attempt at ensuring that neither bishop is seen as a second-class of bishop because of the working out of this set of arrangements when it comes to ordinations. Both types of bishop is equally able to ordain because they are empowered to do so as bishops. Their power to ordain is not subject to the power of the other type of bishop. It's a mutual respect pact - both must be seen to hold equally the status of bishop. The legal mechanism, however, is that the diocesan bishop must give the alternative bishop permission to ordain within the diocese, but the ordination itself will be under the alternative bishop's own authority as a bishop in his own right.

The House also accepted an amendment to express in the Measure one of the three principles which the House had agreed in December (see notes).

There are notes? Blimey, I hope they're easier to wade through...

This amendment adds to the list of matters on which guidance will need to be given in the Code of Practice that the House of Bishops will be required to draw up and promulgate under the Measure. It will now need to include guidance on the selection by the diocesan bishop of the male bishops and priests who will minister in parishes whose parochial church council (PCC) has issued a Letter of Request under the Measure. That guidance will be directed at ensuring that the exercise of ministry by those bishops and priests will be consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women which prompted the issuing of the Letter of Request. Thus, the legislation now addresses the fact that for some parishes a male bishop or male priest is necessary but not sufficient.

I was a little stumped here at first reading and really am not sure what this actually means as it is so badly written. Unpicking it, I think it goes like this...
Being a male priest or male bishop is not sufficient in itself to satisfy some parishes. It is proposed that the Code of Practice includes guidance on exactly what these male bishops and priests will have to sign up to in order to fit in with the theological thinking behind the PCCs' requests to be overseen by male bishops. In essence, this will probably mean that there will emerge some kind of "statement" to which these male bishops and priests will have to sign up in order to show that they will provide Proper Provision of oversight for these parishes.

The House rejected more far-reaching amendments that would have changed the legal basis on which bishops would exercise authority when ministering to parishes unable to receive the ministry of female bishops.

I'm not sure of the wording or even the exact nature of the amendments they mean, but again, I think this relates to the House of Bishops wishing to avoid having any sense of a two-tier episcopacy - first and second division bishops.

It also rejected amendments giving statutory expression to the other two principles (see notes) that it agreed in December, judging that it would be better to leave them to be addressed in the Code of Practice or in other ways rather than referring to them in the Measure.

This Code of Practice will need keeping an eye on by the looks of things. This will essentially be the handbook which gives guidance on how everyone is supposed to behave and the procedures to be followed. Now, who was it who was supposed to be in the detail, again?

Now that the legislation has been amended the six Officers of the Synod (the ‘Group of Six’) - the Archbishops, the Prolocutors of the Lower Houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the House of Laity - will need to meet later this week to determine whether the amendments constitute a change to the substance of the proposals embodied in the draft Measure as approved by 42 of the 44 dioceses last year.

The House of Bishops is not the body who actually decides this. Based on today's decisions, the Officers of the Synod will look at today's decisions.

If the Group of Six determines that no such change has been made - an announcement will be made after their deliberations - the way will be clear for the legislation to come to the Synod for final approval in York in July.

If the Officers of the Synod decide that the amendments don't change the whole nature of the legislation, it will be allowed to go on to the final stage which is the July meeting of Synod.

This is subject to the possibility of the Convocations and the House of Laity asking for the draft legislation to be referred to them for approval before it is returned to the Synod. If they were to exercise this right, their meetings would take place in York immediately before the July meeting of General Synod, and the legislation would need to be approved by each of those bodies by simple majorities before the General Synod as a whole could consider it at the Final Approval Stage (at which two-thirds majorities in each House of the General Synod will be required).

There is still scope for the House of Laity to assert their right to look at it again before this meeting of the full Synod in July.

Summary - in the words of the Sheep:
The House of Bishops have passed the legislation which would allow women to be ordained Bishop in the Church of England.

They passed two amendments which seem to be clarifying in nature:
i) to clarify that both the diocesan Bishop and any male Bishop providing alternative oversight of parishes who cannot accept a female Bishop are equally Bishops, of equal episcopacy.
ii) to clarify that the Code of Practice will need to codify how these alternative bishops (and alternative priests not ordained by female Bishops) will be selected: not only must they have the correct arrangement of chromosomes, they must also be theologically in sympathy with the whole "not ordaining women" thing in a way which keeps such parishes who feel they need such oversight happy.

The House of Laity can still request another go at approving what was agreed today, but failing that, the whole Synod will be asked to approve the whole thing, including today's amendments in July.

The Code of Practice could still provide scope for division, upset or flouncing out if badly drafted.

I hope that helps. If I am wrong about any of the above, please comment to clarify!


  1. The House of Laity can still request another go at approving what was agreed today

    Or either Convocation - that's the clerical governing body for each province (far older than General Synod). AFAIK there's no difference in membership - the two Convocations combined form the GS houses of Bishops and Clergy.

  2. Thanks Chris, I had missed that out. So either the House of Laity or the clergy convocation of either Canterbury or York could, in theory, still ask for this to return to them prior to a final decision in General Synod.

  3. "It is proposed that the Code of Practice includes guidance on exactly what these male bishops and priests will have to sign up to in order to fit in with the theological thinking behind the PCCs' requests to be overseen by male bishops."

    That's going to be interesting. I can't wait to see a Code of Practice agreed by committee try to come up with a statement of evangelical or catholic doctrine which satisfies evangelicals or catholics. Is this an attempt to head off the Southwark rebellion, which is also based on people signing up to a doctrinal statement?

    1. I suspect the Southwark rebels will do their own thing anyway, my gut feeling being that autonomy is what that particular group want. Plus, given that they number sufficient city-types, unaffected in any meaningful way by austerity, among their backers, now is as auspicious a time, economically, as any to flex those particular muscles. The Code of Practice is very likely to play more to the catholic refusniks in my opinion.

  4. "For example, when another bishop ordains someone to the priesthood he needs permission to do from the bishop of the diocese (“delegation”), but the power to ordain derives from his consecration as a bishop"

    So the diocesan bishops grants permission for the alternative bishop for each individual that they ordain within their diocese or do they just grant permission to the alternative bishop to ordain within their diocese?

  5. So Taint Taint and more Taint then

    1. I agree, Lindsay. Despite the tone of the release being - in my reading of it in any case - supportive of Female Bishops, the Bishops have, effectively, made a "schism-in-waiting" here, deferring a split until having a completely divided (and divisive) expression of episcopacy becomes untenable within a national church which seeks to claim to be universal.

    2. This is the concealed time bomb; the danger is we will all get so caught up in the 'how to make it work' game that no one will notice this.... until it explodes.

  6. I'm so grateful to you for your translation/interpretation of 2 of the most baffling statements (i.e. the 2 amendments)I have ever read in relation to women in the episcopate. I linked to your post in my blog post this morning. I still don't know whether these amendments create more fudge or aid clarification for those who need extra protection from bishops who don't happen to be men or who are men but have ordained women.

    1. Thanks Nancy - I'm glad I helped and appreciate the link.
      I think the devil truly will be in the detail of the Code of Practice when it emerges. That is one document I will not relish picking over to work out what it is really saying!

      There are more questions than answers still regarding the contents of this press release though, I'm sure.

  7. The actual wording of the amendments can be read here, by the way at the Thinking Anglicans site. I don't post there myself but like to think of myself as an Anglican who thinks too.... http://networkedblogs.com/xX7Jl

  8. Thank you for your desperately needed translation. I now have a slightly better understanding of this. When we read about the early church in the New Testament, do you think they had any idea of the way the church would develop with all its complexities. I wonder what Paul and the others would have said if they were around now?

  9. And for the sake of completeness, here is a statement put out today by both Archbishops which, so far as I can tell, confirms my reading of Wednesday's press release. One only wishes this had come out on Wednesday at the same time as the press release, though it is understandable that they wished to reflect and consult each other before putting this out.


  10. well what about those who don't have 'simple' xy or xx chromosomes?

    1. You're quite right, Claire - I didn't think of that which shows how far I have to go in thinking through the inclusivity of Christ too.

      Those who don't fit into my above definitions through their arrangement of chromosomes still come into the heading of 'human' in my above argument of course. Not all different arrangements of chromosomes come with gender-assignation issues, in my limited understanding of this, but there is the whole issue of what defines gender lurking here which I hope somebody cleverer than me is grappling with theologically.