For clarification purposes, this debate can last up to three hours. Although I shall not put an initial limit on Back-Bench contributions, if those who have indicated that they wish to speak could focus their minds on about 10 minutes a time limit might not have to be imposed.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the Church of England Synod vote on women bishops.
I am delighted to see so many hon. and right hon. Members in their places. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to schedule the debate and my colleagues on both sides of the House for supporting it. I was encouraged to apply for the debate by the huge level of interest from Members on both sides when, in a move that I think was unprecedented, Sir Tony Baldry came to answer an urgent question after the General Synod rejected the Women Bishops Measure.
Some people think that we should not be discussing this matter at all and that it is no business of Parliament to involve ourselves in the affairs of the Church, but that is to fail to understand our constitution. The Church of England is not like any other faith group—it is the established Church, answerable to Parliament. We can have a debate about whether or not that is a good thing, and I am sure hon. Members will do so.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech, but does he agree that in a multi-faith society there is no longer any place for an established Church?
No, I am afraid I do not agree. For the record, I support establishment, because it provides for what I call a servant Church—a Church that is there for anyone. Many of us will have had experience of that in our constituencies at times of great civic celebration or mourning or simply in the lives of our constituents who may not feel themselves to be particularly religious but find the Church of England is there for them when they need it when they wish to baptise, marry or bury a loved one.
With establishment comes privileges, such as the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords for example, but with those privileges come duties, one of which is the legal requirement for Church of England legislation to be approved by Parliament. To those who say we should not be talking about this, I say not only that we should be but that we do not have a choice. If Synod had passed the Women Bishops Measure, the Ecclesiastical Committee, on which I and a number of other hon. Members and Members of the other place sit, would have had to consider and approve it in the coming months. There would then have had to be debates and votes on the Floors of both Houses.
What has been forgotten in the debate since the Synod vote is that it is perfectly possible that we in Parliament might have rejected the Measure. It is interesting reading the proceedings of this House on women’s ordination more than 20 years ago. Then, Parliament acted as a brake on progress. I remember Members such as John Gummer, Ann Widdecombe and Patrick Cormack, who ensured that extra safeguards for the opponents of women’s ordination were written into the legislation.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about the issue of women bishops, but does he agree that the vote was not simply about the principle of being for or against women bishops? It was about protections for dissenting voices, like those written into the legislation to which he refers. When we talk about those who were dissenting, we should not just characterise them as being for or against women’s rights when a significant number are simply taking a doctrinal view.
I shall come on to that in a while.
I was making the point that back then, Parliament acted as a brake on women’s ordination, but in the intervening two decades there has been a huge change in attitudes in both Houses to gender equality in general and on the role of women in the Church in particular, as we have experienced and witnessed women’s ministry in practice in our communities. My assessment is that when a resurrected Women Bishops Measure comes before the House, the main danger for it is not that it will contain insufficient safeguards for its opponents but that it will contain too many and be deemed inconsistent with widely accepted views on equality.
Figures that have just been released show that half of those who voted against the legislation to allow female bishops were women. Would the right hon. Gentleman care to comment on that?
The hon. Gentleman will have to examine the Church personship of those particular members of Synod, but it is not a secret that there are as many female members of the conservative evangelical and conservative Catholic wings of Synod as there are male members. We do not necessarily make choices and choose values based on our gender.
Indeed, that is an interesting historical parallel.
It is important that we in the Church consider the reality of parliamentary opinion as the bishops, led by the new archbishop, try to chart a way forward. If they are to resolve this matter quickly using the usual or some form of expedited Synod process, they will still need a two-thirds majority in all three Houses of Synod—bishops, clergy and laity—and they will need to get it through Parliament.
It has been widely reported that if the Measure is further watered down in any way or more concessions offered to opponents, it will not get through Synod. However, it may well not get through Parliament either.
The right hon. Gentleman said a moment ago that the Church is for everyone. I have received letters from constituents who have a genuine, deep-rooted objection in conscience to the Measure. Does he agree that it is important for the Church to make every effort to accommodate those of faith and conscience who have a long-standing doctrinal view, even though it may come into conflict with what he described as the values of today?
My view is that the Church should make every reasonable effort to accommodate those views, but the feeling of the overwhelming majority, both of Synod and of the Church of England, is that concessions have gone far enough. As I shall explain, the danger for opponents is that they may have overplayed their hand at the last Synod, and they will not get a deal as good as the one that was on the table then.
I want to make one more point to those who argue that this is none of our business. Many of us are members of the Church of England, and those who are not have constituents who are. Any Member of Parliament who has had contact with Churches in their constituency in the past two weeks will be aware of the enormous shock and hurt among many Anglicans about the Synod vote. We have had women priests for 20 years. The majority of new ordinands are women. Some of the deans of our great cathedrals are women. The Church has been debating women bishops for years.
Everyone thought that it was a done deal. The dioceses voted 42 out of 44 in favour. In Synod itself, the bishops voted 44 in favour and two against, with two abstentions. Three quarters of the clergy voted yes and even in the House of Laity, 64% voted in favour, but that was 2%—just six votes—short of the required two-thirds majority. If we look at the analysis of those who voted that was helpfully provided by the Thinking Anglicans website, we can see that supporters of women bishops in the House of Laity all voted yes. The blocking minority was made up, as Mr Clappison indicated, of opponents from the conservative evangelical and conservative Catholic wings. The composition of Synod is not due to change until 2015, so unless some of those who voted no this time can be persuaded to change their mind, I doubt whether the bishops can be confident of getting a revised Measure through before 2015 under the normal or even an expedited procedure that requires a two-thirds majority in every House.
The only way we might persuade some of the opponents to change sides is by offering them more concessions, but that would be anathema to the majority and would not get through Parliament. There is no guarantee, of course, that if we wait until after 2015, it would be any different.
Indeed, and I understand that there have been spontaneous meetings at local and synodical level all over the country. At an emergency meeting this week, the synod in Bristol voted in a similar vein. There has been a real upswelling of indignation and sadness among many ordinary Anglicans.
As I was saying, things may be no better in the new Synod. The conservative evangelicals are well organised and motivated. If we look at the voting figures in the House of Laity, we see that the majority of lay representatives from some dioceses voted no, even when their diocesan synod had voted overwhelmingly yes. Of course I hope and expect that there will be conversations at local level with these people, to whom it should be gently pointed out that they have not really represented the views of their diocese very well. I have had quite a lot of dealings with the opponents, and particularly conservative evangelicals, and I am not filled with confidence that they will be persuadable.
As I understand it, the Synod vote was not about whether there should be women bishops; apparently, that has been agreed already. The vote may well have been—I stand to be corrected—about how the Church can be kept together, in light of the fact that a minority of people, perhaps for theological reasons, cannot accept the oversight of a woman. That might be the nub of the problem. That is a question, as much as a statement.
The answer, of course, is yes, but the Measure made very generous provision for opponents of women priests and bishops; it would have allowed them to continue to have their own bishop. Supporters of the Measure believe that the concessions were pretty generous, and I do not think that they will become any more generous in the weeks and months to come.
That is why I say to the bishops that there comes a time in any organisation, whether it be a political party or a Church, when it is no longer sustainable or possible to move at the pace of the slowest, which in this case means not moving at all. The overwhelming majority of Anglicans do not want more delay. They believe that the opponents of women bishops will never be reconciled. If some of the opponents decide to leave for Rome or to set up their own conservative evangelical sect, so be it. Similar threats were made over women’s ordination. In the event, far fewer people left the Church of England than was predicted, and as time has gone on, more and more parishes that originally decided that they did not want women priests have come to accept and celebrate them.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is vital that the Church of England considers its trajectory and progress, bearing in mind that women bishops are already part of the international Anglican community in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States and elsewhere?
Yes. I shall mention some of the provinces of the Church of England that already have women bishops when I come on to one of the possible solutions to the impasse.
I was talking about people coming in and out of the Church. For every one person who may leave the Church of England over women bishops, there will be many more who stay or come back; there are also people who, at the moment, shrug and say, “Why should I take a second look at an institution that treats women like this?”, but who will take that second look if women are fully celebrated in the Church. In the discussions that we often have about the importance of Church unity, we very rarely talk about those who have already left or been driven out of the Church, or who have not come in, including members of my extended family and my circle of friends—I am sure that the same applies to many hon. Members—because of the failure of the Church to make progress more quickly.
Having announced on the eve of this debate that they will have another go in July, the Bishops need to be sure that they will win. The process must be concluded quickly—in months, not years. If they are not sure that they can deliver, they should ask Parliament for help. Since the Synod vote, many of us will have been contacted by priests and lay members of the Church, appealing to Parliament to act. A priest from Lancaster wrote to me, saying, “Please, please, please, help.” She went on to ask us to remove the Church’s exemption from equality laws, describing it as
“deeply offensive to most women priests.”
I am very much a supporter of the Church of England having women bishops. Do we speed up the pace at which the Church moves by having this debate, or is it much better to let the Church of England get on with it?
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry may be able to add some helpful intelligence in that regard when he replies, but from all the conversations that I have had with people from the archbishop downwards, they are encouraging us to have this debate. They feel that they need the pressure to be kept on from this place, so the simple answer to Neil Parish is that it is helpful.
Other correspondents have questioned the continued presence of an all-male episcopate in the other place, and suggested that the Prime Minister put a hold on new bishop appointments until the issue is resolved. A male vicar from London wrote to me saying that because the failure lies in the synodical election process, Parliament should intervene. The Dean of Sheffield wrote to me saying:
“Parliament has a responsibility to take action when the future of the established Church is threatened by the actions of a vocal and determined minority.”
Canon Jane Charman, the diocesan director of Salisbury, wrote:
“The Church of England has a privileged place in our national life and Parliament has not just a right but a duty to help us fulfil our responsibilities appropriately.”
She goes on:
“I believe it would be a kindness to the Church and to our Archbishop designate if Parliament can now do for us what we have proved unable to do for ourselves and so bring this shameful situation to an end.”
Canon Charman goes on to suggest this could be done by a simple mechanism of Parliament amending Canon C2, as we would have been asked to do if the Women Bishops Measure had passed.
Women and the Church, or WATCH, which is the umbrella group for those supporting women’s ordination and consecration as bishops, also says that resolving the issue would be a simple task requiring the repeal of one clause of the 1993 Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure or the removal of one clause of one section of Canon Law. WATCH is pessimistic about the prospect of a successful compromise in July and now advocates a simple measure legislating for women bishops. It says that that is the only legislation that Parliament should accept. Provision for dissenters, it says, should be as in all the other Anglican provinces that have women bishops—that is, based on pastoral and informal support.
A non-stipendiary priest and senior civil servant has written to me advocating a simple amendment to legislation, making it legal for anyone to be a bishop regardless of gender. This permissive model would not force the Church to have women bishops but, he predicts, the Crown Nominations Committee would nominate a female bishop within a year or so and some diocesan bishops may well start appointing female suffragans pretty much immediately.
What we have here is not Parliament wishing to intervene or relishing intervening in Church affairs, but priests and lay people in the Church pleading with us to do so. Some people have suggested that it would be unfair or unconstitutional for Parliament to single out the Church of England in legislation in this way. But that is exactly what the Government are proposing to do on same-sex marriage. The Church of England is to receive special legislation, at its own request, applying exclusively to it, banning same-sex weddings in Anglican churches. If Parliament can legislate exclusively for the Church of England to ban same-sex weddings, something the Church is perfectly capable of deciding to do for itself, why should not Parliament legislate exclusively for the Church to do something it wants but cannot deliver for itself—women bishops?
Has my right hon. Friend noticed a particular irony? It looks like this House and the House of Lords will have a significant majority in favour of the legislation that he has just referred to, but the one place where it will not be possible to perform such a marriage is the Crypt Chapel of Parliament. Would it not be a good idea if that were handed over to all the faiths, rather than just one faith?
Yes, there are all sorts of anomalies in the legislation that was presented yesterday, but today is not the time to debate those. We will have plenty of opportunity to do so. It is interesting that the Church of England was asking for Parliament to protect it from itself, so to speak, over equal marriage, yet it is still rather resistant, as things stand, to our helping it to legislate on something that its says it wants to do but so far has not been capable of delivering for itself.
Before we get diverted down discussions that we had yesterday and will have in future on other subjects, will the right hon. Gentleman return briefly to what has happened in the other provinces? Can he say slowly and clearly that where they trusted diocesan bishops to make suitable arrangements, those arrangements were made, and the heavens have not fallen in on those who might be regarded as conservative or dissenters?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada and South Africa all have women bishops, and they have systems that are without any legislative alternative for episcopal oversight; they have voluntary pastoral care. From what I hear, that works well and people are perfectly happy with it, and the women bishops themselves deal with it very sensitively.
Would it help the right hon. Gentleman’s argument if I pointed out that the Church of Scotland, which is also the established Church, and which has no bishops or hierarchy, has no problems whatsoever of discrimination against women. It has had women Ministers for many years, and indeed a woman Moderator of its General Assembly, without any adverse effects?
Yes, indeed, and I commend the Church of Scotland on that. Of course, the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is the sister Church of the Anglican Church, legislated for women bishops about 10 years ago. I do not think that it has appointed any yet, but that is already possible and the heavens have not fallen in north of the border.
When the Minister and the hon. Member for Banbury respond to the debate, I hope that they feel they can comment on the various suggestions for legislative solutions that we have collectively received. I also hope that the hon. Member for Banbury can reassure us that the bishops have an acceptable plan that will work, and work quickly. In the crisis meeting that was held between the bishops and Members of this House and the other place the day after the Synod vote, I was struck by the total unanimity from MPs and peers on the view that the vote had been a disaster for the Church, that the matter had to be resolved quickly and that, if it was not, Parliament would act.
Mr William Fittall, secretary-general of the General Synod, has said:
“Unless the Church of England can show very quickly it’s capable of sorting itself out, we shall be into a major constitutional crisis in Church-State relations, the outcome of which cannot be predicted with any confidence.”
Some people might relish such a prospect. I and, I believe, most Members of this House and most members of the Church of England do not. That is why together we must find an urgent solution to this damaging impasse.
It is a pleasure to take part in this important debate. I agree almost entirely with what Mr Bradshaw has said. I will not dwell on the great theological arguments or the interpretation of St Paul’s letters. Instead, I want to give a view from the pew which I think is very different from that expressed by the House of Laity.
I have been a member of the Church of England since my baptism. I have served on parochial church councils for more years than I care to remember. I have been a church treasurer and, for five years, a church warden. During that time, I can recall—to my shame—voting only once in an election for a General Synod representative. It is a process clouded in mystery, and one in which the vast majority of churchgoers are uninterested.
We are all completely mystified about why people lack interest in the democratic process. I am sure that we all have appeared at church and village halls in front of—how shall I put it?—small audiences, but I can recall only one occasion when no one turned up to a public meeting, and that was when I stood for election to the General Synod six or seven years ago. We held three or four meetings across the Lincoln diocese, to which all the candidates were invited. On one occasion about 15 people turned up, and four turned up at another, but at the one held in a church hall in Brigg the one person there was the caretaker, and he did not want to be there. It makes us question how representative the House of Laity is.
Democracy is a wonderful thing. I was reflecting on that a few weeks ago, because the elections for police and crime commissioners and the vote on women bishops more or less coincided. We had a wonderful result in the Humberside police force area, but the winning candidate received fewer first-choice votes than the loser, while in the Synod, the votes for women bishops were greater in number than those against. We have to reflect on the system that is used. I am encouraged by the noises that I hear coming from the Church saying that changes are afoot. I sincerely hope that the Synod, particularly the House of Laity, becomes much more representative in the not-too-distant future.
My instinct is to say yes, but having just reflected on different voting systems and the potential outcome, I recognise that we need careful thought on how we proceed. I very much hope that the Church will, at a very early date, make alternative proposals.
The important thing is that we quickly move on from this. I mentioned the average person in the pew. We desperately want a Church that proclaims the gospel and cares about its mission in local communities, and at a wider level about being recognised and appreciated by the great majority. It may well be that a smaller number of people than not so long ago will admit to being a Christian, and that is sad, but it is certain that that number will not grow if the Church is seen to be concentrating on these interminable internal arguments in which the wider world is not the slightest bit interested. I want the Church of England to play an important role in our society, because it is vitally needed. As we see time and again at a national and a local level, it brings people together both at times of thanksgiving and in difficult circumstances. There is clearly a role for the Church to play in its mission not only to believers but to non-believers and agnostics.
I urge the Church to move as quickly as possible to revise the election procedures, particularly within the House of Laity, so that the Synod becomes more representative. The message needs to come from this House that we are concerned about the situation and want to nudge the Church in the right direction, and hope that it moves in that direction, but we should not completely rule out taking the matter into our own hands.
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I do so with some trepidation. Although I am a Christian, I am a Roman Catholic, and we do not tend to have too many debates about democracy in the Church of Rome.
Martin Vickers rightly said that although the figure has dropped, 33 million people in this country still regard themselves as Christian. It is therefore right that the House of Commons discusses issues regarding the Christian Church and Christianity. I have a great deal of time for the Anglican Church. It is a great force for good in the world, and in terms of international development it has done a great job for people who suffer. In my own country of Wales, it is a remarkable institution. Yesterday the Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, rightly expressed some confusion as to exactly what the Government are intending to do in relation to the disestablished Church in Wales as regards same-sex marriages, but I am sure that they will be able to sort that out as time goes by.
When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Church of Ireland—the Anglican Church there—played a hugely important role in the peace process, particularly under Archbishop Robin Eames. As I have said, I am not an Anglican, although my mother was, but my personal experience is that the Church is a great force for good.
One might think that, as a Roman Catholic, I would oppose women bishops. I actually do not take any particular view on what the Church of England should do; it is a matter for the Church. Logic tells me, however, that if we have women priests, we should have women bishops, and I think that the majority of practising Anglicans think so too. I understand, however, that there are people in the Church of England who do not share that view, and they need to be safeguarded somehow. I guess that a compromise will eventually be found.
The thrust of my remarks is to ask what Parliament should be doing about this. My right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw made an impassioned, powerful and sensible speech on the issue. I do not necessarily agree with everything he said, but I understand the passion with which he made his arguments. As parliamentarians, we need to take great care with anything we do in relation to a Christian Church, even though that Church is established. The Anglican Church in Wales is not established, so this does not apply there, but the Church of England is established, and it is different for that reason.
In the 25 years I have been in this place, I have never voted on any Church of England Measure. That is not because I did not have a view on those matters, but because I believe that, as a Catholic, I should not vote on them. Also, as a Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency, where the Anglican Church is disestablished, I do not feel that it is appropriate for me to take part in such votes. I will continue not to vote on any such issues until I finish in this place.
We are in a rather muddled position at the moment. The Church of England is established, which means that there are bishops in the upper House and that certain things have to happen in the House of Commons. However, the composition of the House of Commons is very different now from what it used to be. Many Members are not Christians, never mind members of the Church of England. Is it really right that they should take part in decisions on what a Christian Church should do? I worry about that. I believe that common sense will prevail at the end of the day, however, and that debates such as these might prod the Church of England to reach a speedy conclusion on this matter.
This has been an incredibly damaging episode for the Church and, as other Members have said, we should reserve the right to act. However, the right hon. Gentleman has said that it is highly valued as an institution, and the best way by far for the Church to reverse this terrible public relations damage would be for it to resolve the problem itself.
That is the feeling that lay behind the thinking of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown when he was Prime Minister. He said that he would not take part in choosing bishops of the Church of England, and that that should be a matter for the Appointments Committee. I believe that he was right. I do not see why a Methodist, a member of the Church of Scotland, a Roman Catholic or someone with no faith at all should decide whom the head of the Church of England should be. That would be incredibly wrong in this day and age. The Church itself should make that decision. I accept that there are strong views on this issue, but as I said, I believe that this debate will have some value in that it might prod the Church of England into reaching a speedy conclusion.
I rather sympathise with my right hon. Friend’s take on the state of the Church in relation to its established nature, not because I want it to be disestablished, but because I think that there could be different ways in which it could be established that were more akin to the established nature of the Church of Scotland. In Scotland, Parliament never decides on any such matters. The truth of the matter is that, as the law and the settlement stand, if women bishops are to happen, that decision will have to come through here. If there are more concessions, I cannot see that getting through Synod or through here.
I understand the problems. I am in a difficult position in relation to the establishment of the Church of England. On balance, I think that it should remain established, but that the settlement of establishment might have to be changed, as my hon. Friend has just suggested. Its establishment sends a signal that we are, I hope, still a Christian country. The fact that it is established underpins that. However, I beg Members to be conscious of the fact that it must still be the Church itself that makes this decision. We might have our views on the matter, but we are not members of Synod—except for one or two of us—and should not be in a position to take that final decision. So this is a word of warning— a kind word—for the Church of England and for Members on both sides of this House who hold strong views about this.
I support wholeheartedly the argument for women bishops and believe strongly that it will happen; the question is not if, but when. The recent decision was a great disappointment. It is a great honour and privilege to follow three of the finest speeches that I have heard in some time, by Mr Bradshaw, my hon. Friend Martin Vickers and Paul Murphy.
I was a lapsed member of a religion. It was well and truly bred out of me by having to go twice a day and three times on Sundays as a child. It may have also been assisted by the fact that I discovered horse racing, and my talent as a bookmaker did not endear me to the local vicar where I went to school. When I became a jockey—a very poor one, I admit—many people prayed that I would improve, because I kept losing on favourites, which upset them tremendously.
I have now reverted to the faith and am an enthusiastic member of the Church of England. I rise to speak not because I believe that I have a great deal to contribute to this debate, but because I want to address one specific issue. I urge that the Church be allowed to resolve this matter—I strongly endorse this—of its own volition and in its own way. It concerns me desperately when the state starts to interfere with matters of the Church. I accept entirely the points made by the right hon. Member for Exeter and endorse the comments made by some of those who intervened on him. It is accepted that this place has a role to play, by reason of its statutory controls, in overseeing and ultimately endorsing the Church’s actions. However, we would take a large and significant step—in this I disagree with Chris Bryant—if we attempted to mandate, order or empower the Church to take any action that it could manifestly resolve itself.
It is self-evident that rights are often won very slowly. Some parties to the argument wish the debate to move speedily and for the matter to be resolved. I am one of them, but that does not mean that I should tell the Church how it should behave such that it would not be able to resolve its own difficulties itself. In that respect, I disagree with my hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry, who said after a previous debate:
“This is not an issue which can in any way be parked for the next couple of years or so, waiting for another round of synod elections…This has to be an issue that has to be resolved as soon as possible.”
That implies that Parliament should get involved, but I disagree.
That was certainly not the implication. With all due respect to my hon. Friend, he has misunderstood what I said. I was saying that the Church has to get on with it, and I am very glad that it is getting on with it, as evidenced by this week’s meeting of the House of Bishops and the programme of work that it set out.
I am happy to take that guidance and clarification, because some people will have interpreted some of our debates and the questions that have been asked over the past month or so as giving the impression that we wish to get involved, rather than allowing the Church itself to make those decisions. I endorse entirely my hon. Friend’s point that the Church has bravely taken the step to expedite matters as best as possible. Tomorrow, some of us will meet Bishop Justin Welby, who I understand is anxious to resolve the matter as quickly and efficaciously as possible.
It is right that we discuss this issue. We should take this opportunity to celebrate the role of women in the Church. It is patently obvious in my constituency that their presence has transformed the Church and improved it immeasurably. The Church is much more open and is much enlivened by the presence of females leading the congregation. That can only be a good thing.
I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s argument that it would be better if the Church resolved this matter itself, but does he not accept that there will be limitations on that, given, for example, that there is currently a bloc of Members in the other place, all of whom happen to be men? There is a limit to how long that can continue.
I would go further. I see it as the natural progression from this debate that there will be women bishops, that there will be women bishops in the other place and, ultimately, that there is the potential for women archbishops, although I have no doubt that that will not happen speedily. I endorse what the right hon. Gentleman says and he moves me on to my next point, which is that there cannot be partial equality. Eventually, equality must be total. In that respect, what goes on in the other place must follow what is taking place in this debate.
As one of my female priests put it to me, the Church is not actually about the House of Laity, but about the work that it does locally in its parishes. That is the most important part of its work. In my constituency and across Northumberland, I am certain that it is providing a fantastic service. Although I may have been a lapsed sinner in respect of the vices of horse racing, bookmaking and being a poor jockey, I am happy to now be in the right place.
When I first heard the result from the Synod, I was surprised, not only by the sense of despair but by the amount of joy that I felt. The joy was caused by seeing so many people, particularly women, taking the result seriously. I thought that it would be dismissed as another little local difficulty for the Church and that very few people would pay much attention to it. I was genuinely surprised and pleased by the number of women who are not Church members who were affronted by the decision.
I was surprised by my despair over the decision. The Church of England had just gone through the establishment of a commission to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury. The commission came to the conclusion that the guy who had hardly got his clothes on as a bishop should be given the top job. Given that the Church thinks that God moves in mysterious ways to guide its decisions, if that was not seen as the powers that be suggesting to the Church that the gene pool was pretty poorly based and that it would be foolish to continue to hide itself from half the human race when it comes to questions of leadership, one despairs at the experts in the Synod who are supposed to read the times better than the rest of us.
The result of the commission was, in the words of a constituent of my hon. Friend Helen Goodman, to appoint a “holy thug”. We are into very interesting times with this new archbishop. He is already showing his leadership by suggesting that the Church will confront this issue and be encouraged to remake the decision.
If I may, I will make two points about the remaking of the decision. There are moves that should legitimately be made by the Synod and moves that we should make. I do not favour, at this stage, interfering with the Synod’s processes. Therefore, I do not think that we should change the rules of the game by changing the canons or, as my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw suggested, changing the legislation in such a way that it makes it inevitable that there will be women bishops. That move is long overdue and, as my Roman Catholic right hon. Friend Paul Murphy said, once the key decision has been made and there are no theological objections to women being priests, there can be no theological objections to their being bishops. Bishops are those in ministry who are given additional responsibilities. The nature of their task is not different from that of a priest—indeed, it may not be as important as that of a local priest—but they have added responsibilities.
What areas should hon. Members and the synods be concerned with? The synods, I hope, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said, will follow the diocese of Bristol and table motions of no confidence in the current Synod. Presumably at some stage such a total of dioceses will have done that and the Synod will have to be dissolved and new elections fought. Clearly, those elections will be fought on the issue of women bishops, and I look forward to that very much. When the new Synod gets down to business, it might look at the extraordinary procedure to which it subjects itself when trying to pass reforms, which is very harmful.
The message is that the Synod should get on and start reforming itself, but that must come through the parishes and the dioceses. At some stage, the dioceses will force the hand of the Synod. To those who say that they cannot afford it and that the Church must stumble on like this for a number of years, I say that that is an appalling argument to put forward and I hope that the Synod will not pay attention to it.
What can hon. Members do? Two suggestions have been made about how we might act. One was that we should withdraw the privilege that this place gave to the Church to discriminate against women 37 years ago. If one reads the debates, this place was convinced by the argument that the Church needed a bit more time to sort out the matter. Most of us would think 37 years—quite a few Parliaments—is long enough for it to have sorted itself out. I therefore hope that Members who agree with that approach will support the Bill that I have promoted, whose Second Reading will be on
The second measure, which has also been hinted at, was presented as a Bill today and will also have its Second Reading on
— and those deans can take their place in the House of Lords.
I hope that hon. Members feel—this is the theme of the speeches we have heard this evening—that we should not cease to be concerned about this matter, but that we must be careful to keep to legitimate activities and not interfere with the Synod’s powers to expedite the measure and reform itself. Unless we get real movement on that, I hope that hon. Members who support both those measures will be in the House on
I will declare my interests. I was baptised into the Church of England and confirmed into the Church in Wales—the latter makes me much more comfortable, because I support disestablishment. I am chair of a Church primary school, nominated by my diocese, Southwark, a trustee of a Church secondary school in my constituency and a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee in Parliament.
Like everybody who spoke immediately after the Synod’s decision, I despaired at the folly of the Church of England in making a huge public mistake. After so long, everybody was clear about the view of the Church as a whole. We have heard the figure that 42 of the 44 dioceses are in favour of women bishops, and we have heard the view of the leadership, including Archbishop Rowan Williams, who did everything he could to ensure that the change was delivered during his time as Archbishop, for which we thank him.
I come from the evangelical tradition, and many evangelicals support the ordination of women as both priests and bishops. The situation is not one category in favour and another against. In the church to which I belong, St James in Bermondsey, which would be classed as an evangelical church, I do not think there is a single person who does not support the ordination of women as bishops.
Evangelicals look back to the scriptures, as does everybody else who gets involved in this argument. Although I understand why people have come to the view that they cannot accept that there can be women priests or bishops, that has very little biblical foundation. Nothing in my New Testament says that Christ set up a structure by saying, “You will have churches, and you will have deacons, priests and bishops, and they will all be men.” I may have missed something, but I have read the whole New Testament at one stage or another and there is nothing that says that. Although a tradition of having men has built up, some of the early leaders of the Church right from the beginning, when Christ was executed and rose again, were women. Indeed, in the early days some Churches had women bishops, for heaven’s sake. I do not understand why we are having to revisit this issue after so long.
I find myself agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman. It has always surprised me that women seemed to have a good, established position in the early Church, right up until it was legalised and then became the state religion of Rome. That leads me to feel that we should overturn the centuries of discrimination against women in the Church, possibly by disestablishing it. Maybe, once it is disestablished, it will be able to see a proper route to incorporating women as a proper and fundamental part of the Christian family.
The hon. Lady and I are on the same wavelength on that. I understand the arguments for establishment, but I believe that a radical Church should not be part of the establishment. We should be outside the establishment campaigning for Christian values, but we have ended up being in the establishment by accident. That is a debate for another time, and we will not resolve it today.
One paradox is that the established Church of England has decided not to have women bishops when the head of the Church of England, the supreme governor, is a woman. The whole thing is inconsistent. There is another anomaly in the argument that, because of the relatively recent history of the Church, only men can be priests, and that people want to be under the pastoral responsibility of a male bishop. The Church has provided that option in relation to priests, and it works. Now it has come up with a similar proposal for those who want a male bishop. It seems to me that if the first worked, the second is likely to work. I ask people to be generous and less suspicious and untrusting. It is understood that some people have a different view, and everybody has tried hugely hard to accommodate it.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the Church of England decided not to have women bishops. The fair way to put it is that the Church of England Synod decided by a very large majority to have women bishops, and it is now a question of how and when, rather than rejecting that.
I am clear that, in theory, there is no objection to women priests according to the Bible and Christian teaching. I am not a theologian, but the theology seems clear to me. However, it also seems to me that the Anglican Church has accepted women bishops all around the world. According to the information that I have, there are five Anglican provinces that already have women bishops, one of which has a woman presiding bishop—New Zealand and Polynesia, Australia, Canada, southern Africa and the United States. There is also the diocese of Cuba, which is not in any province.
A further 12 provinces have agreed that they can have women bishops and they are not, as it were, the usual suspects—Bangladesh, Brazil, central America, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, north India, the Philippines, Scotland, Sudan and Uganda. If I may say so, for heaven’s sake, if all those places have dealt with the theological argument and concluded that this is possible, then the Church of England is far from leading the Anglican communion; rather, it is following behind. There is a remaining group of provinces that have not yet accepted that they can have women bishops, but which have women priests, so they are clearly on the way. It therefore seems that many people in the Anglican communion have addressed this issue both in theory and theology and in practice.
Let me repeat what has been said strongly by others. My experience is that the Church has benefited enormously from allowing women into the ministry of the priesthood in the last 20 years, not just through their life experience, pastoral, academic and intellectual qualities and preaching ability, but simply through the sheer numbers. The right hon. Member for Exeter, who opened the debate, referred to that. At the moment, 20% of ministers in the Anglican Church are women. Across the Christian denominations in the UK, 20% is the average—the Methodists have 40%, but the average is 20%. In 2010—the last full year—more women than men were ordained as Anglicans into the priesthood for the first time. There are now 50% more women in the Church of England in full-time parochial appointments than 10 years ago. One in five of the paid clergy are women. All the evidence is that people are saying—from evangelicals to those in other parts of the Church, from women to men, from old to young—that they believe there should be women bishops in the Church.
The Church desperately needs more people willing to be its priests, its bishops and its leaders, to get out there and do the job of preaching and teaching. To say that women cannot be allowed any further than the first two rungs of the ladder—that they cannot be in the leadership—is ridiculous. It is to deny a pent-up opportunity that all of us who have watched women at work in the Church have seen—and I would not be forgiven if I did not say that among them is my wonderful sister-in-law, who is currently a chaplain for a hospice in Essex and who has served in the Chelmsford diocese for many years as a wonderful priest and member of the Church.
Let me refer to what we do now, because that is the question. I do not think we should take over the role of the Church of England now, not just because I believe in disestablishment, but because I think it would be inappropriate. I share the view of Mr Field—that we may however want to take control of what happens at the other end of this building in deciding who is admitted to represent the Church of England as bishops. It has long been anomalous that in the House of Lords—the Lords itself is anomalous—one bloc has to be all-male. That seems inappropriate.
Government and Parliament need to offer their best offices to the Church of England so that the new proposal—which the bishops mercifully have today announced they will make for Synod next year—can receive their support and technical advice and therefore pass both the Synod and this place. The bishops need to know in advance—I pay tribute to other colleagues on the Ecclesiastical Committee—that what they come up with will not be tripped up in Parliament, and we need to know in advance that it is compatible with our principles of equality, of which colleagues have spoken around the House.
The majority of people who go to church in this country are women. The leadership that the country calls for must include the majority of people in Britain, who are women. I hope the Church has learnt its lesson. I have every confidence in the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate, who is coming to meet us tomorrow. I hope that by this time next year we will be celebrating not just the change in the Church’s rules, but the beginning of a transformation that will embolden the Church, improve it and increase the effectiveness of the ministry of the Church to proclaim the gospel to everybody, which is best done by everybody who is capable of doing it.
I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw for securing this debate. I am very pleased to be able to take part in it. My Durham constituency is an ecclesiastical and Anglican centre, so this is a matter of great importance for a number of my constituents. I am tempted to spend a few moments just highlighting the beauty and spirituality of Durham cathedral, but I have a feeling that you may rule me out of order if I did, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would, however, recommend that all Members visit the cathedral at some stage.
It was some considerable time ago—1992, so 20 years—that the General Synod first voted to allow women to become priests. Without legislation to extend this to include bishops, a glass ceiling has been created for women in that their careers in the Church are limited purely by their gender. A number of us hoped that this situation would be rectified in November this year; unfortunately, the General Synod voted no, although narrowly, to women bishops. This is somewhat surprising, given the great advances made by women in the Church of England. The most recent data show that more women priests are being ordained than men—290 women were ordained into the priesthood in 2010, compared with 273 men. Partly because of this growth in the number of women priests, the result in November was particularly devastating, especially when considered alongside the view that has been expressed since—that it could be 2015 before this matter is considered again.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this has been a real blow to a great number of women who have dedicated their lives to the service of the Church. Given that there are some real difficulties in reconciling different views on the apostolic succession and the laying on of hands, is it not absolutely crazy that with ground having been conceded on the issue of ordaining women priests, they cannot then move up through the organisation to become bishops?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. I shall come on in a few moments to the difficulty of finding a compromise other than the one considered in November.
I am going to argue that the Synod needs to reconsider its decision as a matter of urgency. This time, it will I hope come up with the right answer, which is to allow women to become bishops. The change needed is really a simple one. All it needs is the simple repeal of the clause in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 that states:
“Nothing in this Measure shall make it lawful for a woman to be consecrated to the office of bishop.”
As I say, this simply needs to be repealed.
Unlike some Members, I think that because the Church is established, this is a matter for Parliament. What I want, however, is for the Church to resolve the matter first. It seems to me particularly important for it to do so. I also think we have to recognise that the Church has had a pretty long time to do that—[Interruption.] Yes, a very long time to do it. The specific Measure before the Synod in November had been considered for five years, during which many legislative committees had brought together members of the General Synod who supported women bishops and those who opposed them, but no agreement other than the compromise before the Synod in November was agreed. If those five years of talks did not reach any other conclusion, prolonging a decision further is unlikely to get any other one put in front of the Synod. This suggests that action simply needs to be taken now. As the campaign group WATCH—Women and the Church—highlighted, this creates a difficulty. Those who support women bishops require women to be bishops on a par with their male colleagues, with no legal no-go areas. Those who will not accept women bishops require legal separation from women bishops.
As I have said before, I think that if another compromise were sought it would prove elusive, and that it would be better to consider how a general Measure supporting women who wish to become bishops could proceed. I should like that to happen quickly, because a number of constituents have written to me about the matter. Although I knew that there was a very strong Christian community in Durham, I was surprised by the number of letters that I received and the anger that was expressed in them. Perhaps I should start with the Bishop of Durham himself, the Right Rev. Justin Welby. He is soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and I think that Durham’s loss will be the country’s gain.
Is it not extraordinary that, although he has already been appointed, he will not take up his post until Easter? Would it not be a good move for the Synod, having elected a new leader, to put him in post speedily, particularly when he has a reforming programme to accomplish?
That is an interesting point, and if I were not about to lose a really wonderful Bishop of Durham I might well agree with my right hon. Friend. In this instance, however, we are in no hurry to get rid of our bishop, and I am quite pleased that he will be with us until Easter. I suppose that it might be to the greater good for him to move earlier, but I am sticking to my position, which is that we need his ministry in Durham for as long as possible, and certainly until we have someone else to take his place.
I was about to tell the House what the Bishop of Durham said, which I think is very important. He said:
“It is a very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters.”
I also heard from Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a vicar at Belmont and Pittington in my constituency. She said that she felt
“rejected by the church that accepted me for ministry” but was not prepared to consecrate her as a bishop.
A letter from Richard Cheetham, a constituent of mine, is typical of many that I have received. He said:
“I find the whole thing a huge insult to women priests, and to women in general. Women can rise to the top positions in industry, commerce, education, and politics. Therefore I find the decision not to allow women bishops totally unacceptable.”
Is it not testimony to the strength of these women—and, indeed, that of other people who have been rejected by the Church—that they carry on, and stick with it? The strength of their faith, and their dedication to it, must be far greater than that of their male colleagues, given the way they stick it out, with good grace and good humour.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. In fact, I do not think that I received any letters or telephone calls from people saying that they were considering resigning, which, as my right hon. Friend says, is extraordinary in the circumstances.
I absolutely agree with Mr Cheetham and with others to whom I have spoken and who have written to me. The decision not to allow women to become bishops seems particularly absurd when we know that women priests and their ministry have been so very successful.
A recent article in The Observer highlighted the story of the Rev. Philippa Boardman, vicar of St Paul Old Ford church. When she arrived at her London church in the mid-1990s, St Paul Old Ford was derelict, its Victorian structure rotting away quietly after a decade of neglect. Under the watch of the enterprising new vicar, however, it was born again. It reopened as a thoroughly modern church-cum-community centre, with a gym in the attic and a café in the entrance. It also provides Zumba, WeightWatchers and after-school clubs. Last year, in recognition of her efforts, Ms Boardman was appointed MBE, and many members of the church community believe that she is also a prime candidate to become a bishop. Without change, however, that cannot even be considered.
I think that most of us who have women priests in our constituencies know what a fantastic job they do. In my constituency, Margaret Masson does a tremendous amount of community work. She sets up schemes to address the needs of older people, and she is at the heart of her community. I could mention others, too, but I will not take up the House’s time. My point is that women do a fantastic job at all levels in the Church. It is unfair that they are not able to become women bishops, and I do not think it is good for the Church either.
James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, said the Church would collapse if all the female priests in place now were somehow removed. Other Churches have made progress with this issue, and perhaps we have something to learn from the Church elsewhere. Some 29 female Anglican bishops have been consecrated worldwide. In many of the countries where that has happened, such as Canada, the USA and Australia, those who will not accept female bishops are offered provision informally and pastorally.
If we were to accept this approach, just one simple change would be required: the removal of clause 1(2) from the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993. I hope the Synod will consider that. I urge the Church to reconvene the Synod and reconsider its decision, and to allow all of us to benefit from the ministry of women bishops in the future.
Having listened to the right hon. Members for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, and having heard before from my hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry, I am filled with envy. I feel a little like the boy with his nose pressed against the pie shop window, looking inside at the good things within and feeling very excluded. I do not think that the right hon. Member for Exeter and those who have spoken in his support understand how fortunate they are. For them a decision on the issue—which has now confronted the Church for a number of decades—as to the acceptability, doctrinally and theologically, of women priests and women bishops is so obviously, decisively and clearly reached on one side.
They are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to reach a conclusion of such a decided kind, because some of us cannot do so, even after very careful and patient reflection. I fully respect the conclusion and the sincerity of the right hon. Member for Exeter, having listened to him today, and I ask him to accept that some of us cannot reach the same conclusion with the same decisive finality. Those of us who read the Bible and listen to what ancient texts say and hear the words of the Roman Catholic Church find it hard to conclude that the steps the Anglican Church has taken over recent decades are necessarily the right ones.
I know that the sentiments I express today are shared by many. I have received letters from people who feel the same way. Many of us also acknowledge that the decision taken some years ago to admit women priests to the Anglican Church is irreversible and the march of relentless logic will probably mean there should also be women bishops. However, that minority of whom the right hon. Gentleman spoke so critically includes many people of sincere Christian faith who wrestle daily with their consciences on this issue, and who appreciate with humility that there are hundreds or thousands—or possibly tens of thousands—represented on these Benches here today who have reached a contrary conclusion to that which their own conflict on this subject leads them to reach, and who feel that this is a matter so free from intellectual difficulty that they can reach such a conclusion.
In the presence of that, this minority feel some sense of humility but simply cannot bring themselves to dismiss the tradition of 2,000 years, the convictions of the Roman Catholic Church and the convictions of many millions of people around the world with the ease and facility that the right hon. Gentleman does. That they feel sincerely, I ask him to accept.
The right hon. Gentleman was critical, probably rightly, of the fact that when people divide into the trenches, as they have on this issue, mistrust breaks out. He expressed concern that the negotiating position of the conservative wing of the Church is not held sincerely and these people do not wish to reach a conclusion. I can talk only about the letters I have received from the laity in the rural areas I represent. Many of them agreed with the position that he takes, but some did not. Those letters do not resonate with entrenched obstructionism; they seek a way forward. They sound with a sense of authentic pain. They are from people trying to grapple with an issue on which they realise they are in the minority, and they are seeking a way forward. It will test the leadership—
Not just now. It will test the leadership of the Church, and I hope that this new leader of the Church is the God-sent thing he appears to be. I hope that he will be able to bring along the minority, among whose number I count myself, because the last thing that that minority wishes to do is see the Church they love riven by this issue. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman, and others in the House who, understandably, support so passionately their view, to entertain Christian compassion for the minority, who do not seem to have much of a voice in the debate today, nor had much of a voice in the statement the other day.
I assume from what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying—I hope he will forgive me if I am wrong—that the safeguards that already exist regarding women priests have kept him, and many others who did not and still do not want women priests, in the Church of England. What does he think was not adequate with the concessions being offered to the opponents of women bishops that would have prevented them from staying in the Church of England?
I will come to that, because I intend to tackle the specifics in a moment. First, it is important that I set out the background to the remarks I intend to make, because I am approaching this, a matter relating to the Church, as beyond political propaganda and the crudity of political discourse; the things we are dealing with are precious to us all. They are part of our common bond of spiritual inheritance. For those who believe in the Church as I believe in the Church—an essential part of the fabric of our constitution that I cannot envisage ever being without—the fate of the Anglican Church is a crucial issue. We need to approach it in a spirit that tries to unite people, not divide them. The rules by which the decision of the Synod was reached the other day were created for a reason. Constitutionally weighted majorities are invariably introduced around the world, not only in the Church, but in countries, to protect minority opinions. That is why the Synod introduced the rule. People may argue with it now. They may say,
“It is too high. It is unrealistically high. It puts into the hands of those who do not seek agreement too powerful a weapon”, but two-thirds majorities—weighted majorities—are there for a reason.
So fundamental a change after 2,000 years of tradition should receive a weighted majority. We cannot complain. We should not point the finger of accusation at the Church because those who conscientiously could not agree exercised their right not to do so. The rules were put in place by the Church so that decisions of this magnitude and gravity should be taken only with the overwhelming support of the Church; just because it failed to reach that threshold and the bar was not passed according to that majority, we should not complain. We should not say to the Church, “You have failed to do your duty.” The constitutional threshold was there for a reason: to ensure that when this change or any similar change on so fundamental a matter was introduced, it carried the overwhelming weight of the Church.
I agree with my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, who spoke a moment ago and is no longer in his place, that it is inevitable that we shall have women bishops. The question is only how and when, but we must entertain the patience to allow the Church to make that decision on its own, for it will surely do so. We should not bully it or exercise pressure on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will forgive me for saying that although he says he did not do so, when I listened to him in the urgent question the other day, he seemed to go perilously close—I will not say to bullying, because that would be unfair—to putting pressure on the Church. We have 2,000 years of tradition and we have been discussing the question of women bishops for 40. That is not long set against 2,000 years.
We should have the patience and the compassion to allow the Church to work this out on its own. For my part, I daily see the extraordinary devotion and dedication of women priests in my constituency. I am humbled by their dedication. I see them serve remote rural parishes and fight for their communities. I see the good that they do and I grapple with this question of whether we should have had women priests and have women bishops. I try to persuade myself that we should and I am acquiescent in the inevitability that it should happen—resigned. Perhaps I acknowledge too that the doubts I have on that score are wrong, but I simply ask that those who are so fortunate as to have such conviction on this subject to understand that this conflict is serious. It is perhaps more serious than anything in politics, because it affects one’s Christian faith. That is why I urge the House to pause before it takes the step of weighing in to determine this issue on behalf of the Church. Let us allow the Church, guided we must believe by God, to reach this decision on its own in its own time. I believe it will do so.
I accept that those women will have to wait for another two or three years, but I cannot bring myself to believe that that is the presiding imperative set against the harmony and unity of the Church. Although I respect the work that they do, I repeat that I do not seek to hold out—
No, not now.
Let me make it clear that I do not seek to prevent this step, but merely to argue that we should allow the Church to reach this conclusion and to heal itself on its own.
I repeat: it is no use complaining because a constitutional majority threshold was not reached. The liberals in the House and those in the House who believe in constitutionalism have no right to point the finger at the Church and say that somehow its systems are defective. That constitutional majority was not reached. It was set in place for good reason, to ensure that the whole Church, or as much of it as possible, was taken with the decision.
In 1998, the Lambeth conference resolved that those who could not bring themselves to accept the existence of women priests or bishops should nevertheless have rules created for them that allowed them to exist in the highest degree of communion with the Anglican Church. In 1993, the Ecclesiastical Committee, on which the right hon. Member for Exeter serves, accepted that rules should be created in perpetuity for those who took that view. We cannot break those promises but, equally, I agree with him that those who are on the conservative side must negotiate with sincerity. They must not set the bar so high that it is unacceptable to the majority. I appeal to those who have the good fortune to be in the majority to be tender towards those who are in the minority.
Before my hon. and learned Friend concludes may I redirect him to answer the question that was put to him by Mr Bradshaw? What was it about the Measure, which had the overwhelming support of the archbishops and the House of Bishops, the vast majority of the House of Clergy and a clear majority in the House of Laity, that my hon. and learned Friend found objectionable?
I will come to my hon. Friend’s question. He cannot complain, and he certainly, in a genial and bluff manner, should not, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, kick the Church into adopting a view that he represents when, in fact, the constitutional
majority was not reached. That is the rule by which the Church agreed that the decision should be made. To begin to bully the Church into taking action to follow his convictions is wrong and unrepresentative of the Church as a whole.
To come to my hon. Friend’s question, first, the code that is supposed to exist was never written. How on earth can we vote something through, expecting protective measures to be written in future? Why did the Church not create the code, in draft at least, so that members such as me would be able to read it? It was not written. Secondly, there is an existing protection for Church councils to be consulted, including councils that have taken the view that they ought to be excluded from the jurisdiction in which women priests celebrate the Eucharist. The priest must consult the Church council before an invitation is extended to a woman to celebrate the Eucharist. That protection is to be removed under the current provision. How can we expect those on the other side, already feeling bruised as a minority and feeling that the Church does not necessarily want them—that may be the case, but it is certainly not the publicly professed view of the Church—to have confidence in Measures that are not written and which remove existing protections?
My hon. Friend asked for another example. As I understand it, if a Church council writes a letter of request asking to be excluded from the dominion of a particular bishop, a priest is able to veto that request. That does not give confidence to those parishes where a majority feel that they do not wish to be ministered to by a woman bishop. It cannot give confidence that they will be able to live according to their consciences.
I have given my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury three examples, and I hope that he will deal with them. First, the code was never written, so one is asked to accept a series of protective measures that have not even been given proper detail. Secondly, an existing protection is removed—these are only examples—and thirdly, the priest in charge can veto the Church council’s view on the dominion of the female bishop.
I say again that I have no wish to engage in expressing divisive or entrenched views. I accept that women bishops will come. As for my doubts on this score, perhaps I will find that I am wrong when I see the good that they do and the astonishing devotion of some that I know. I hope that I am wrong. I am willing to be wrong, and willing to accept that I am. I profoundly hope that others of my persuasion will come round to the idea, and that the Church’s unity can be maintained. I simply ask my hon. Friend for some patience. I know that he and others have been patient for a long time.
Yes, I know, but we are talking about a minority. The change will come; I ask only for a little further patience, so that we can get the settlement right, and so that those thousands of people who are, as I am, in a state of uncertainty and doubt, can be brought along.
I ask hon. Members to contemplate what it must mean for a member of the Church, who is brought up to it, celebrates it daily, and loves it as so many thousands of us do, to feel that the Church is leaving us behind, and moving away from us. I know that there are hon. Members who disagree and do not feel like that, but others do. Imagine how it must feel. We are wrestling to come to the conviction that other Members have reached.
I can only say to Lyn Brown, who is commenting from a sedentary position, that I feel that I have already exposed far too much of my personal convictions, and have probably trespassed on her patience, but I did so because I believed, having listened to the debate, that this particular voice and body of opinion has not been represented in the House. I realised when I stood that what I said would not be popular, and would attract mirth, perhaps mockery; that some might be impatient with it; and that those on the other side of the debate have waited a long time.
I only ask that Members see the other point of view, and that the Church be allowed to reach this decision in its own time. I agree with the right hon. Member for Exeter that sincerity is necessary on both sides, and that the majority have come a long way in order to satisfy the concerns of the minority, but I ask for an extra effort. I ask for compassion. I ask for Christian patience.
Order. It may be helpful to hon. Members who have yet to speak in the debate if I set out the clear time constraints. The debate will end at 8.20 pm. I need to allow time for a number of speakers, so the wind-ups will start at 10 minutes to 8. There are five Members left to speak, and I intend to make sure that all of them get in. Rather than apply a time limit, I ask each Member to take less than 10 minutes—some may feel that they do not need 10 minutes—so that we can conclude the debate in an orderly fashion.
I thought it would be appropriate to wear purple in this debate. I joined the Movement for the Ordination of Women 30 years ago and I found November’s Synod decision worse than disappointing. It is totally disgraceful that the whole of my adult life has seen this endless struggle over the position of women in the Church of England. I feel deeply sorry for women clergy up and down the country. In my own constituency I think of Jane Grieve, Brenda Jones, Linda Gough—fabulous women doing fabulous work. Even if they are not called to be bishops, the decision is demeaning and demoralising. Furthermore, as other hon. Members have said, women still play a huge role in most parishes among the laity. I am sure women are the majority of the laity in the Church of England.
However, my greatest concern is for the mission of the Church. This country faces many challenges where the Church’s unique voice needs to be heard—how to bind fractured communities, how to address alienation and the inexorable rise of consumerism, and how to protect the natural environment. Who will listen to a Church when it behaves as Synod behaved last month? How much more time and energy must we spend on this question?
We have all heard from many members of the public and members of the Church in recent weeks. Some of those who are opposed seem to believe that Members of Parliament are, by and large, in favour of consecrating women bishops because they see it as a justice issue, rather than a theological issue. Of course, some of the people who are opposed to women bishops think this will give the Church a new lease of life, and that is the last thing they want, but that is not, by and large, the view that we have heard.
On the concerns about theological issues, the views were very well represented by Mr Cox. In the light of what he said, it is clear that we need to go right back to the beginning of the argument. Genesis 1 verse 27 says:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”, and the passage goes on to say:
“Be fruitful and multiply”.
The notes in my Bible, which is the New Revised Standard Version—an ecumenical Bible recognised for use by the Protestants, the Catholics and the eastern Orthodox—say:
“Together men and women share the task of being God’s stewards on earth.”
I would like to remind the hon. and learned Gentleman how the passage ends:
“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Now let me whizz forward 3,000 years to the New Testament. I take my understanding from the much maligned and misunderstood St Paul, who wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that in Christ there is neither male nor female but all are one in the spirit.
Since when, I ask those who are opposed to the consecration of women as bishops, has justice not been a theological issue? The justice tradition is the glory of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament we see it radically re-envisioned. Let us take, for example, the beatitudes, the roles given to the three Marys, the Magnificat—
“he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden . . . scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts . . . exalted the humble and meek.”
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is going to get to John, chapter 4, in which Jesus reveals himself for the first time to the Samaritan woman. It is not to a man, or to one of the 12 nominated disciples, but to someone who was possibly the lowest of the low, a Samaritan and a woman to boot. For me, that speaks volumes about the equality of the New Testament message.
My hon. Friend gives another excellent example from the New Testament.
The legislation in Synod foundered on the adequacy or otherwise of the guarantees offered to those opposed to change. I cannot accept their self-description as a vulnerable and oppressed minority. In modern Britain, people have a choice about whether to stay or go. They do not face being burnt at the stake. If they are excluded, it is self-exclusion. There has been so much fence-sitting in the Church to keep a minority on board that the fence is now collapsing under the weight.
I also know that many people believe that it is extremely important to maintain the historic coalition of the Elizabethan settlement. I remind the House what Richard Hooker, one of the great theologians of that era, did and said. His argument was essentially that it was not about keeping everyone happy in the short term, but about having a coherent polity and coherent Church governance. That seems to me to be absolutely relevant to the position we find ourselves in today. All these exceptions, constraints, conditions and flying bishops are making the situation excessively complex. It would be impossible to know where authority lies in the Church or to give a clear picture of our theological view of the role of men and the role of women.
Hooker also said—I think it is relevant—that because things were ordained by God does not necessarily mean that they were ordained for all time. He felt that we should use our God-given reason to tell which points of scripture had what kind of authority. When the old way, which might have been right in its own time, might be wrong now, he said there was “some new-grown occasion”. I believe that we are now in a new-grown occasion. Of course growth can be painful—we all know that from personal experience—but it is also essential.
By far the best outcome would be for the Church itself to resolve the issue quickly. I know that Bishop Justin wants to address it straightaway, and I endorse everything my hon. Friend Roberta Blackman-Woods said about his capacities. It is right that the Church should resolve the issue itself, but if it cannot, that will inevitably raise profound questions about the established Church’s relationship with the state. I will put it simply. What do we want? Women bishops. When do we want them? Now.
I should begin by declaring an interest, one that is in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a church organist. Indeed, my hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry rather surprised me last night when he told me that he has left in his will a stipend—hopefully a sizeable one—for me to play at his memorial service when the dread day comes.
The argument has been about Church governance and whether we should let the Church get on with it or take an interest in it ourselves. I am encouraged by the speeches that have been made, because they will allow the church to make its way through to achieving a resolution. When I was asked, prior to Synod, what members attending it should do, I told them to beware of the House of Laity; its members are representatives, not delegates, just as we are, and will vote as they wish. I said that because there is nothing unspiritual in recognising that the Church of England has to indulge in reason and discourse. I pray in aid Richard Hooker, whom Helen Goodman mentioned. He established that there were three pillars on which the Church of England rested—scripture, tradition and reason. His firm belief was that God’s purpose can be worked out as much through discourse as scripture and tradition, and that it was therefore absolutely right to indulge in that. I am not going to dissent from that view except to say that this has to be worked out at the level of the parishes, not at Synod level.
I was very much taken by the news that one of my local villages, which has a socking great abbey in the middle of it, but which is quite a small village now, was putting forward a petition to the Bishop of Oxford to try to get in place a simple, smooth process for resolving this issue. Within a few days, 1,500 people, which, by my estimate, is about double the population of the village, had signed the petition and were going to get a move on with it.
I come from a completely different wing of the Church than my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes, but I would not dissent one iota from what he said about the way to tackle this and the process that needs to be sorted out.
I speak with some caution on this issue since, as I have mentioned in previous exchanges, I am not involved with the Church of England or with any other religious institution or establishment. Why, then, should I speak in a debate in which everyone except me is a religious believer and a member of some wing of the Church of England? If the Church were not established, I certainly would not speak in the debate. I would take the view that whatever rules a particular religion may have, that is a matter for it, not for me. However, the Church of England is an established religion, and bishops sit in the House of Lords as of right because that has been the custom and practice over a long period.
Moreover, whatever decision the Church came to, and certainly if it were in favour of women bishops, it would be necessary, as my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw said, for Parliament to approve it or otherwise. Therefore, although it appears as though I am an outsider, as a Member of Parliament I am involved, as I was involved 20 years ago when the issue of whether women were to be ordained as priests had to come to the House of Commons. It will not come as a surprise to anyone, but I voted for that, and no one said to me, “Keep out of it: it is not a matter for you, you are not a religious believer and you are not involved with the Church of England.”
I could not disagree more with Mr Cox, but I respect what he said. I recognise his viewpoint, and he argued with all the skills that one would expect from a leading barrister. I listened to his eloquence, as I always do, with great interest, while not necessarily, and certainly not on this occasion, agreeing with him.
What I find so difficult to understand about this controversy is that the principle of women being ordained was accepted, and it has been a fact for 20 years. Inevitably, as a layperson, I must say to myself, “If women are ordained as priests, how on earth can it be argued that there should be a barrier to their promotion to bishop—or indeed to further promotion?”
The space around the Admission Order Office contains extensive displays depicting the struggle that women waged in order to obtain the parliamentary vote and to stand for election. Hon. Members who have not yet seen them might like to do so on their way out. I am sure that all of us, including the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon, would agree that tribute should be paid to those women who fought so hard 100 years ago and more, who went to prison and who starved themselves and in some cases actually died for the cause that they believed in. How right they were.
It was finally conceded at the end of the first world war that the other half of the adult population should have the right to vote and to stand for Parliament, but let us imagine what would have happened if the Government of the day had said, “Yes, you may stand for Parliament and become a Member, but if you are elected, you may go no further. You may not become a Minister.” That would have been illogical, but the issue of women bishops is no less illogical. The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon quoted scripture from his wing of the Church, and I understand that, but he himself acknowledged that the principle of women priests had been accepted. This is not a question of whether women should be ordained or not. That has been happening for 20 years and we rightly pay tribute to the contribution that they make, in my constituency and elsewhere, so why on earth should we prevent them from becoming bishops?
In December 1966, when I represented a different constituency, I had an Adjournment debate on the problems being faced by some black youngsters who were being discriminated against simply because of the colour of their skin. This was before the Race Relations Act was brought in under that Government. I now find myself, nearly half a century later, standing here speaking about discrimination against women. I believe that there should be substantial parliamentary pressure for a change to occur, bit it might come as a surprise to some Members that I do not believe that Parliament should necessarily override the decision of the Church. I want the Church itself to reach the decision. But—and it is an important “but” for most of us—it is necessary that the Church should come to the right decision very quickly. If it does not do so, there will be more and more impatience in the House and certainly outside it for parliamentary action to be taken.
It would be far better if the Church understood what was needed, and I believe that it does to a large extent. The vote that took place resulted in a two-thirds majority in two of the Houses of the Synod, with the House of Laity nearly achieving one. It has been quite clear from the debate tonight what the feeling of Parliament is on this matter—apart from the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon—and if the Church of England as a whole recognises the pressure and the concern that undoubtedly exist in this House, that will be all the more reason for it to come to the right decision promptly. I hope that it will do so.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should like to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw on securing this debate. I should also like to congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on allowing the debate to take place because of the importance of the subject. I want to say at the outset to Mr Cox that my comments this evening might not be seen as tender, and that I am very impatient. I am also on the side of the oppressed—in this case, the women in the Church who are being discriminated against.
The Times this morning carried a report on the 2011 census, which showed that Hull, my home city, had had the largest fall in Christian belief in this country over the past decade, at 16.8%. The row that is going on in the Church over women bishops will just make the established Church’s struggle for relevance even more difficult as it seeks exemptions from the realities of the modern society that it wishes to serve. We all know that women are the mainstay of the Church in communities throughout our land. As has been said many times, the theological argument over women priests—and, therefore, their position in roles of authority—was settled 20 years ago. Like my hon. Friend Helen Goodman, I was involved in that campaign to get women ordained. The argument was won, and since 1992 more than 3,000 women have been ordained as priests, which is a huge success for the Church of England—new wine in old bottles. The next natural step, as many people have said, is to see some of those excellent ordained women priests move into positions of church leadership as bishops.
Discrimination in the wider community is wrong and prevents the talents and abilities of all from flourishing, so it is important in the established Church that the experience and skills of both men and women are used. The Church should be led by the very best, not just those who happen to be male. As I said during the urgent question to the Second Church Estates Commissioner last month, the stained glass ceiling for women in our Church must go. As a result of the House of Laity being just six votes short of a two-thirds majority on
I want to remind the House of some of the arguments that have been deployed as to why we should not have women bishops. Some hold the belief that God created man to lead and that women are there to be his obedient helper. They take the view that the Church should be run by Adam and Steve, not Adam and Eve. Those in favour of women bishops more commonly draw inspiration from the theological arguments that both men and women were created equal in God’s image. We can also rely on facts that are usually painted out in biblical history. For example, in the early Christian Church, until about 400 AD, there were female priests and it was common for congregations to be led by women.
Theology and theological debate evolve over time. My celebrated predecessor in Hull, William Wilberforce, fought a 30-year campaign against the slave trade, with theological arguments for slavery deployed against him. Theological fundamentalists tried to resist the scientific work on evolution by Charles Darwin and others. Afrikaner theologians also made a case in favour of apartheid. Those who oppose gender equality in the Church often draw on literal, if selective, interpretations of the Bible, and I have heard personally from some such opponents in recent days.
The House might like to hear just a few of the comments I have received from those whom I call the three wise men. The first said to me:
“God actually knows better than you”.
Thanks, Mr Dave Croton—I am only a woman, after all, so what would I know? The second wise man said to me:
“The language of ‘equality’ seems to me to be profoundly unhelpful in this debate.”
Thanks, Mr Ian Colson—equality is often “unhelpful” to vested interests. Finally, I was told:
“How dare you seek to go against the will of Almighty God. Almighty God will hold you to account for what you have said in the day of judgment. Ask his forgiveness and beg for mercy.”
Thanks, Mr Jonathan Buss—I will take my chances on that one.
Forward in Faith has produced a briefing that is heavy on public relations advice for how opponents of change should lobby Members of this House on today’s debate. I will quote an example of the quality of its case:
“We do not, for example, have women in Premier League football teams but this is not seen as a failure in equal opportunities.”
We are asked to believe that the physical demands of being a bishop are like premiership football—and obviously beyond what women can do. I am not really sure that that is the strongest argument for a team that is fighting relegation.
I am worried about what will happen next. The decision made by a minority in the House of Laity means that this essential modernisation of the Church of England has potentially been put back another five years, with no guarantee of progress even then. A broad Church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds, even though the vast majority of its members want to see women bishops. Some of those who tell us that they want to see change claim that it must not be rushed. However, this issue has been debated in the General Synod since 2000, so I do not think that the Church can seriously be accused of acting in haste on gender equality.
So what needs to be done? As long as we have an established Church, Parliament has a role to play in supporting it through its time of crisis. The Church and wider faith communities often seek to inform and inspire our deliberations in politics. It is now time for the Church to pause and reflect on how wide the gap has become between it and the society that it wishes to serve and influence.
As the established Church is part of the settlement of this country, this House should consider what the decision of the
First, I agree that there should be a moratorium on the appointment of new bishops until this gender discrimination ends. Secondly, if the bishops want to send a clear message that they are engaging seriously with women in the Church, they should end the practice of meeting and voting in private when amending primary legislation, even though their standing orders allow the press and public to be present. Thirdly, it can no longer be right for the Church of England to be allowed exemptions from equalities legislation. We are all meant to be equal before the law, and nobody is above that law.
I have a message for the many friends who have worked so patiently for so many years to see women bishops. They should take up the fight with added vigour and less willingness to compromise with those who will never accept change and who never compromise themselves. They should seek inspiration from British history. Left to itself, the Church will not restart its slow, uncertain process on women bishops until July 2013. July 2013 will mark 125 years since a group of low-paid, exploited, mainly women workers went on strike at the Bryant and May factory in Bow. They won and changed history. One movement that followed the match girls was the suffragettes. The Church of England would struggle to exist without the voluntary work and good will of women all over the country, so what if the women of the Church of England had their own strike? Perhaps it is true that well behaved women seldom make history.
In conclusion, the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate has agreed to meet Members of Parliament and I will certainly be there. I hope that the all-male group of bishops will start to work with and listen to senior women in the Church, who have so much to offer. I hope that the House will support the one-clause Bill that I intend to bring forward in the spring to introduce women bishops. I will finish with the words of a former leader of the Labour party, John Smith, who was a man of great faith. He summed up what most women in the Church of England seek:
“A chance to serve, that is all we ask.”
Before I call the next speaker, I apologise to Diana Johnson, whom I have known for a very long time. I was listening and reflecting on this excellent debate and not paying enough attention to what I should be doing, which is chairing the debate. I apologise that she had to prompt me on whom to call.
I am delighted to follow all the speakers in this excellent debate. In particular, I should mention the lecture in divinity from my hon. Friend Helen Goodman, who chose to wear purple. It is no accident that she represents a constituency called Bishop Auckland.
I was not born into the Church of England. I was born in Glasgow into a Congregationalist family, where I was privileged to have as my first minister the very first woman minister ever ordained in Scotland, Vera
Kenmure. It took about nine years before I ventured south of the border, but I remember my first occasion in an English church. I thought, “What a funny lot you English are. You actually allow men to be priests!” I could not believe that a man was standing there in the robes of a minister. It was an image that always struck me as very odd.
The ministry I received from Vera Kenmure 50 years ago was exceptional, and it was probably what convinced me, from absolute infancy, of the value of women’s ministry in the Church. When I came to England and entered the Anglican Church, after a short period I joined the Movement for the Ordination of Women. In fact, my now wife—she was then my girlfriend—and I joined MOW together.
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry will correct me if I am wrong, but I think the first occasion on which a vote was taken on the ordination of women was in 1978. I will never forget that Una Kroll, who led the Movement for the Ordination of Women, listened in silence and in shocked horror to the vitriol that came across in that debate. There was vitriol against women who dared ask to be allowed to serve in their Church, and I remember that at the end of the debate Una Kroll stood up and said, “We asked for bread and you gave us a stone.”
A year or so later I remember listening to Una on the radio. She was asked whether because of the nature of the debate she still had the vocation and calling to the ministry that she had felt previously. I remember that her voice stuttered and she had obviously not reflected on that point until that moment. She said she was not sure whether she could still say that she felt God’s calling.
I listened with great care to Mr Cox and I acknowledge the sincerity of his views. He asked for tolerance, for provision to be made and for understanding, but that tolerance, provision and understanding was not made in 1978 or beyond. My girlfriend became my wife, and as we marched down the aisle, the “War March of the Priests” was our introit—at that point both of us wanted to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. However, because of the nature and vitriol of the debate, many of us felt that we had lost that sense of vocation and that calling. Therefore, when the hon. and learned Gentleman asks for patience now, he is asking for something that he must accept he and his colleagues in the debate back then did not afford to us.
First, in 1978 I was 18 and I was not participating in such debates. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept that even if what he says is right—I deplore it if it were so and regret it profoundly—that is no excuse, reason or basis for not extending compassion and understanding now. That is simply to compound one sin with another.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and I do not hold him responsible for what happened then or for the loss of vocation that I or many others felt as a result. He is right to say that understanding and provision must be made within the Church now for those who cannot assent to the doctrinal excellence of the position that the Church has reached, which is that there is absolutely no distinction between the deaconate, the priesthood and the bishops. That is a fundamental theological principle. There are those who cannot accept it, and they have asked that provision should be made for them. Just as provision was made for those who could not accept the ordination of women in the first place, so it must be made for those who cannot accept the consecration of women bishops. However, that provision has been offered and rejected. It is now time for the Church to put its house in order and press forward with what it knows to be doctrinally accurate. That is why I greatly respected the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland made—she sought to base her arguments in theology.
The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon talked about the issue that confronts the Church of the consecration of women bishops. That is not the issue that confronts the Church; it is poverty and injustice in the world. This is a sideshow that should not occupy the Church. We should not have to debate it over and over again, year after year. It is nonsense, and it is not what the Church should be about.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland spoke powerfully about the lessons from scripture. It seems to me that the fundamental heart of Christian theology is the power and the vision of the resurrection. I do not think anyone in the Church would deny that. Who were the witnesses to the resurrection? Women—it was the women who went into the garden and witnessed the resurrection, at a time when their word had no basis in Judaic law. They could not give testimony in a court, but our Lord had them as his witnesses to the resurrection to bear testimony to the entire world of the essential truth of the Christian faith. If that is not a vote for women to take up their place in the Church, I do not know what is.
Not at the moment.
Two or three years ago, on Christmas eve, my wife and I went into our local church to celebrate midnight mass, and there was a woman celebrating. I have to say, she gave one of the worst sermons I had ever heard. It was dreadful. As we got into the car after the service, I turned to my wife and said, “You know, that was really quite inspiring.” She looked at me and said, “Are you mad? That was one of the worst sermons I have ever heard.” I said, “Yes, but just think—25 years ago, could we ever have imagined that we would be sitting in a conservative evangelical parish on Christmas eve listening to a woman priest give just as bad a sermon as any man? That is progress.” We went forward that Christmas eve with a renewed sense of faith, joy and possibility.
What happened a couple of weeks ago dashed that feeling and made us think, “For goodness’ sake, why can’t we get on with the purpose of the Church?” The purpose of the Church is to serve the world, not to keep looking in on itself. Fundamentally, the Church has made one great mistake in its history. It has always had a fixation with sex instead of love and power instead of service. I pray God that it will put it right quickly.
This evening’s debate has been full of eloquent and incredibly passionate speeches. I pay tribute to everybody who has participated, particularly my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw, who secured the debate. It has been clear this evening and over the past couple of weeks that there is widespread agreement in this House—I accept it is not unanimous, not even this evening—that what was arrived at in General Synod a couple of weeks ago is not acceptable to Parliament. Today’s debate has also highlighted the prevailing view here that the Church should take speedy action to rectify the matter. It is also clear that the mood in this place is that if the Church does not act, Parliament should and will.
There might be some—my right hon. Friend Paul Murphy referred to this—who see that suggestion as unwarranted interference in the Church’s affairs or as undermining freedom of religion, but the Church of England occupies a special constitutional position as the established Church. That brings with it specific responsibilities, including making the law of the land. As has been noted, 42 diocesan bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual, with 26 permitted to sit at any one time. As my hon. Friend Diana Johnson said, surely our Parliament must at every level be reflective of the society it represents. That is not compatible with the reservation of places in our Parliament that could only be open to men. Further, whether we like it or not, Parliament’s role in relation to the Church’s decisions cannot be brushed aside. Although the Church enjoys legislative initiative, decisions of the General Synod must be approved by Parliament. It seems clear that there would be no hope whatever of last month’s decision receiving the approval of this House. A rethink is therefore essential. The Church really has no option, as it has recognised.
If that threatened uncontained confrontation between Parliament and the mass of Church membership, we might of course be concerned about a brewing political and constitutional crisis. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and others pointed out, it is important to remember that the majority of Church of England members want to see women bishops in the Church. That was the majority vote in all three Houses of the Synod. Only in the House of Laity was the requisite two thirds majority not secured.
This is not a situation where Parliament is pitted against the will of the majority of Church members. Indeed, many Church members, along with hon. Members today, have highlighted the special value they place on the contribution that women bring to the Church and the priesthood. They argue that it is right that women should also have the opportunity to bring their personal style and quality of leadership to the role of bishop. Those Church members point to the fact that the head of the Church is a woman—and not for the first time in its history. For those who care deeply about the status of the Church of England in the eyes of the country at large, there is regret and concern that the decision to refuse women bishops serves to present the Church as wholly out of step with society and remote.
The mood here is that action must be taken swiftly. Most hon. Members of this House have made it clear that they would not find it acceptable to wait until 2015 for the Synod to begin revisiting the matter with a view to moving forward. That urgency also appears to be recognised by the Church. As parliamentarians, we urge the Church to take the most rapid steps to resolve the issue. I particularly hope that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, will be able to enlarge on how the Church might approach that.
We on the Labour Benches will not accept any solution brought forward by the Synod that entrenches discrimination against women bishops. It will be important that in finding a new solution, the currently exclusively male House of Bishops consults extensively with women in the Church of England—in the clergy, in the House of Laity and, importantly, as hon. Members have said, in the parishes themselves.
If the General Synod fails to make progress, we on these Benches will support the Government to take the necessary action to ensure that the introduction of women bishops is not held back further by those—a minority—who do not reflect the views of the modern Church. We all hope that that will prove unnecessary, and that the Church itself will find the solution that is sought in this House, in wider society and, indeed, among the majority of members of the Church.
This has been an important and poignant debate, with powerful contributions and speeches from every single Member across the House who has been able to speak today. I sincerely congratulate Mr Bradshaw on securing this debate and bringing it to us this afternoon and this evening.
It is clear from what has been said today and from views expressed over the last few weeks that the decision of the General Synod not to allow the appointment of women bishops has generated very strong feelings indeed, among those who wish to see women appointed as bishops in the future and those who want to retain the status quo. As our Prime Minister has made very clear indeed, the Government strongly believe that the time is right to enable the appointment of women bishops. Women already do a tremendous job within the Church of England, including in their role as members of the clergy, so it is very disappointing that a vote taken to address this issue has failed, despite a clear majority of Synod members voting in favour of the proposal.
The role of discrimination law in this matter has been raised. Let me make it very clear that there is nothing in discrimination law that would prevent the appointment of women bishops, should the Synod vote to do so. It is right and proper that the Church of England, just like any other religious organisation, is not exempt from having to comply with our equality law, namely the Equality Act 2010.
However, it is also right and proper that certain exceptions exist within the 2010 Act to recognise the specific nature of religious organisations and the unique role they have to play within our society. One such exception exempts religious organisations from certain parts of the Act’s employment provisions, where
“the employment is for the purposes of an organised religion”.
This exception is used by a number of religious bodies, allowing Roman Catholics and orthodox Jews, for example, to appoint only men as priests or rabbis. Amending the 2010 Act to remove this exception with the intention of forcing the appointment of women bishops would potentially have effects going far beyond the Church of England alone.
I am listening to what the Minister says. In the light of what was said yesterday about the special legislation being brought forward for the Church of England with regard to gay marriage, how does what the Minister has just said fit in with yesterday’s statement?
The two issues are completely different and unconnected, and should not be conflated.
Amending that exception would risk seriously affecting the work of various other religious bodies in some extremely sensitive areas. In any case, our law enables women bishops to be appointed; that is not a stumbling block here.
Some Members have pointed out today that changing discrimination law is not the only option. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means that, in theory, it would be open to Parliament to legislate on Church of England matters without the involvement of the General Synod, for instance by amending canon law to require the appointment of women bishops. However, Parliament and Church work well together on so many matters. We would not want to disturb that balance by making impulsive changes, given the special relationship that exists between the state and the Church of England as the established Church of our nation.
The Government have made their views very clear on the matter of women bishops: we would warmly welcome their appointment. However, we respect the independence of religious organisations, and it is right that decisions of this sort about internal structure are ultimately matters for the Church of England itself to decide.
I particularly thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry, for his earnest remarks about the position in which the Church finds itself today. I am heartened by his acknowledgement of the difficulties and emotions that the General Synod’s vote has generated and his determination to ensure that the Church resolves the issue as soon as possible, and I look forward to hearing from him again in a moment.
I think that the whole House will be very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the debate, and to Mr Bradshaw for the way in which he introduced it. We owe a debt of gratitude to all who have spoken today, genuinely and with integrity and honesty, expressing a strong desire to ensure that we can collectively find the best solution for the Church.
The Church of England is a national Church. It is a Church for the nation, or it is nothing. It is a Church that exists in every parish in the country. It is a Church to which everyone can look for spiritual and pastoral guidance. It is the Church of Remembrance Sunday, it is the Church of funerals and bereavement and of joy, happiness and celebration, and it is also the Church that marks disasters when they occur. Because it is a Church for the whole nation, it needs to reflect the values of the whole nation.
I think that everyone within the Church of England recognises that until we can resolve the issue of women bishops, we will not be able fully to fulfil our role as a national Church, and we will not be fully able to concentrate on mission and growth, which must surely be the fundamental purpose of the Church. As was pointed out by Barry Gardiner, there are many issues that the Church must address, such as justice and poverty, from which we will continue to be distracted as long as we focus on the issue of women bishops.
“a Church that ordains women as priests but not as bishops is stuck with a real anomaly, one which introduces an unclarity into what we are saying about baptism and about the absorption of the Church in the priestly self-giving of Jesus Christ.”
Earlier this week, the House of Bishops met at Lambeth palace and considered the implications of the recent rejection by General Synod of the legislation to enable women to become bishops. I say to Diana Johnson, and others who perfectly properly have said that women should be involved in the further deliberations, that it was absolutely appropriate that at those discussions with the House of Bishops, the House of Bishops benefited from the participation of Vivienne Faull, the Dean of York, Christine Hardman who chairs the House of Clergy, Dr Paula Gooder and Mrs Margaret Swinson, all of whom are senior women in the Church of England who had all previously served on the steering committee or a vision committee for the legislation.
The House of Bishops rightly started—as almost every contributor to this debate has done—by expressing gratitude and appreciation for the ministry of ordained women in the Church of England. We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to women priests, deacons, archdeacons, canons and deans in the Church of England for what they do in rural areas, inner cities, hospitals and prison chaplaincies throughout the realm. Without them, the Church of England would have considerable difficulty in reaching, and ministering to, every part of the nation. The House of Bishops recorded its sadness that recent events should have left so many women in the Church feeling undermined and undervalued. I hope that if nothing else results from this debate, a message will go out to all women clergy in the Church of England that they are valued and appreciated by Parliament for the work they do for us all and for our community.
The House of Bishops acknowledged the profound and widespread anger, grief and disappointment felt by so many in the Church of England and beyond. I suspect that many Members will have been surprised by the wider resonance General Synod’s decision had in the community as a whole. In our constituencies, people who one would not normally have expected to take an interest in the Church of England came to us to express concern and disappointment at the decision.
The House of Bishops clearly agreed that the current situation was unsustainable for everyone, whatever their convictions. I was grateful to my hon. and learned Friend Mr Cox for making it clear that the view of everyone from all parts of the Church is that the current situation is unsustainable, because I think everyone acknowledges that in due course there will be women bishops. Indeed, General Synod agreed in 2008 that there should be women bishops.
The House of Bishops expressed its continuing commitment to enabling women to be consecrated as bishops and, I am glad to say, it intends to have fresh proposals to put before General Synod at its next meeting in July. This is not an issue that can be parked. This is not an issue that, as we lawyers would say, can just be adjourned generally to some other time in the future. It has got to be worked at until a solution is found.
I am glad to say that early next year the House of Bishops will be organising meetings, at which it intends to involve large numbers of lay and ordained women, to discuss how women might more regularly contribute to the Church, and further action will be taken in order to avoid any delay in proposing new legislation. The House of Bishops has also set up a working group drawn from all three Houses of Synod. Its membership, which is to be determined by the archbishops, will be announced before Christmas. That group will arrange facilitated discussions with a wide range of people of a variety of views in the week beginning
The House of Bishops will have an additional meeting in February, immediately after those discussions, and expects to settle at its May meeting the elements of a new legislative package to come to Synod in July. There has been, on occasions, some criticism of the bishops, so may I just say that the House of Bishops voted overwhelmingly in support of there being women bishops in the Church of England? The bishops have sought to give the greatest possible leadership in what is, after all, an Episcopal Church, where the bishops are meant to lead. The House of Bishops has been doing all it can, with God’s good grace, to give that leadership and will continue to do so.
The House of Bishops also made a number of observations that have been reflected in this evening’s debate. It concluded that in future for a Measure to succeed and command assent it will require much greater simplicity. If I may, I will write to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon; I do not want to have a fight now, because that is not in the spirit of this evening’s debate. I can say, however, that the draft code of practice was published earlier this year and there are very good reasons for the provisions to which he drew attention. However, his point illustrated that the whole thing had become so complicated on the protections that nobody was quite sure who was being protected, against what and by whom. I thought, as a member of General Synod, that one of the most moving speeches there was made by a female member of the clergy from the diocese of Oxford, who asked, “Why is it that the Church needs to be protected from me? What is it about me?” That went to something of the heart of some of the issues we had to resolve. Some of the protections had become so complicated, so I think that much greater simplicity will be required.
However, I think it was genuinely helpful that my hon. and learned Friend spoke in this debate, doing so with great sincerity, because I agree that it is also important, as the House of Bishops made clear, that there needs to be a clear embodiment of the principle articulated in the 1998 Lambeth conference that both those who dissent from and those who assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate are loyal Anglicans. No one is saying that one form of Anglicanism is better than another; in so far as it can be achieved, everyone needs to be involved in this.
However, an important point made by both Front-Bench teams, and by many in this debate, is that we cannot square the circle by creating second-class women bishops. If we are going to have women bishops—everyone has agreed that we are going to have them—they have in every regard to be treated the same as, and have the same powers, rights, privileges and disciplines as, their male counterparts. One cannot have a category of second-class women bishops or in some way create a church within a Church to accommodate this matter. When I was first appointed as Second Church Estates Commissioner, I went to General Synod at York in 2010 and said, “I need to tell General Synod that if and when a Measure comes to Parliament, it will not get through if it is creating second-class women bishops. This is not whipped business and there is no way in which we will get a Measure through Parliament if there are to be second-class women bishops.” Although of course we need to recognise and seek to involve and include all the traditions, we cannot square the circle in that way.
The House of Bishops also agreed that there must be a broad-based measure of agreement about the shape of the legislation in advance of the beginning of the actual legislative process. The House of Bishops endorsed the view of the Archbishops Council, which had met the week before, that the Church of England must now resolve this issue through its own processes as a matter of great urgency. Some voices this evening, quite understandably, have suggested that if the Church of England does not act, Parliament might need to. It is my earnest prayer that over the coming months the Church of England can and will demonstrate that it can resolve this issue itself.
I have no doubt that there are those in the Church of England who will have heard the voices of people who are not just senior Members of this House but senior churchmen. Mr Field is a very distinguished member of the Church of England and chairs a number of relevant committees and when he finds it necessary to present Bills to the House on the nomination of bishops to the other place, the Church of England should take account of that and listen. These are not enemies of the Church of England—everyone who has spoken in the debate is a friend and supporter of the Church of England who wants it to succeed. I am quite sure that it will listen to what Parliament has said collectively, which will ensure that the Church of England, House of Bishops and General Synod will address the issue with urgency.
If any right hon. or hon. Lady or Gentleman has any concerns about that, I invite them to come and listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate tomorrow. They will hear from the Bishop of Durham a very clear message that there is determination to ensure that there are women bishops in the Church of England at the earliest possible moment.
With the leave of the House, Mr Speaker. I shall be very brief. I sincerely thank our colleagues, right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, for a worthwhile and quality debate. In particular, I thank Mr Cox. It was very important that the dissenting voice was heard and it made for a much better debate. We had some wonderful contributions and it would be invidious of me to single anybody out.
I was very pleased by the contributions made by those on both Front Benches. It is very nice to see the Culture Secretary in her place, as she has come to listen without taking part. That is noted and, I hope, appreciated by Members. Last but not least, I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry. We could not wish for a better Second Church Estates Commissioner. If anybody can help Parliament and the Church together through this impasse, it is he, and I wish him well.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the Church of England Synod vote on women bishops.