I am delighted to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson on securing the debate in the first instance. It is an important and timely debate and has attracted a lot of interest. My hon. Friend sends her apologies for being unable to attend, but as someone who has been asking questions of the representative of the Church Commissioners on the Floor of the House of Commons on the issue of women bishops for some time, I am very pleased to be deputising for her today, with Mr Speaker’s permission.
I pay tribute again to the women and men who have been fighting for justice and equality in the Church of England for many years: first with the movement for the ordination of women, and now with the organisation called WATCH—Women and the Church. In particular, I have had a number of dealings with Sally Barnes, who is very involved in WATCH. It is a great pity that we are still having battles in the Church of England about equality in 2012. Many people might be quite shocked to realise that the established Church of this country has been allowed to opt out of equality legislation. It has been able to opt out of its duties under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and under the Equality Act 2010. I believe that if we have an established Church of England, that Church should have regard to and follow the laws of the land as well.
It is good that we are having this debate close to international women’s day on
The legislation in relation to women priests went through in November 1992, but it specifically said that women could not become bishops. The reform of 1992 has been a huge success. There are now 3,000 women priests. The talents and abilities of both women and men are now being recognised and utilised by the Church. There are four female deans of cathedrals and many others in senior roles. Despite many predictions to the contrary, that has not led to the collapse of the established Church or to any other existential disaster befalling mankind—or even womankind.
The same would be true, I believe, of moving forward to having women bishops. Women priests have entered the mainstream culture of our country, far beyond just spawning “The Vicar of Dibley”. Like many great progressive reforms, it has put new wine into old bottles. I want to celebrate and build on that success. We know that being a bishop is a very difficult job to undertake and the Church needs to choose bishops with a wide range of gifts, skills and experience. It is inconceivable that those gifts and skills and that experience will be found just in the male sex. The Church could benefit greatly from having the opportunity to select from both men and women. That is right and fair.
The argument, the theological debate, about women bishops is as it was for women priests. It concerns the interpretation of women’s role in the great Christian teachings. Those against equality believe that God created the man to lead and that the woman was there to be his helper. Some hold that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. They believe that women should not be in a leadership role over men. Therefore women are somehow seen as secondary to men. Those in favour of women bishops more commonly draw inspiration from the arguments that both men and women were created equal in God’s image.
When I was looking at the arguments, I found a familiar theme about the God-given role of certain individuals or groups. I read carefully the debates on the abolition of the slave trade and I shall explain why. William Wilberforce fought very hard in the House of Commons to champion that cause. The discussion at that time was about how a Christian could defend slavery. There is symmetry with the idea that there are preordained roles that people have to play. It is striking when we look back and then look at the issues of equality and justice that the Church of England should be at the forefront of championing today.
The role of women in the history of Christianity, from the time of Jesus, has often been painted out of the picture, just as happened with black people and the tremendous role that they have played in our history. However, if we look at the Bible, we know that Jesus treated women fairly. He spoke to them as equals, and of course it is always recognised that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection. In the early Christian Church, until about 400 AD, female priests and congregation leaders were very common.
Those who draw on the literal interpretation of the Bible apply it word for word to the modern world. That can be dangerous, but they also do it based on a selective interpretation of the text—one that I think is based on worldly interests and prejudice. Whatever happens in the politics and obscure committees of the Church of England, the real world and the United Kingdom have changed enormously, especially during the past century. The real world looks like leaving the Church of England behind. Women are now far more educated, are more likely to have a job outside the home, can vote equally with men and are no longer the property of their fathers and passed to their husbands on marrying.
There is much further to go on equality issues. There is a need for more women in Parliament—as I am sure all hon. Members recognise—in our local authorities, at the Bar and in the boardroom. However, women have broken through as leaders in society. We are no longer there just to make the tea. In 1979, we had the first woman Prime Minister; and Margaret Thatcher duly proved that a woman could do the job of leader in society as badly as any man.
We are looking at a process of change. God was said to have created the earth in seven days. It is taking a great deal longer for the tortuous internal machinery of the Church of England to introduce the simple reform for women bishops. The draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure is currently in its final legislative stages. It was considered at the February General Synod after recent consultation among the 44 dioceses saw 42 come out in favour of women bishops. Only two—London and Chichester—narrowly voted against. Thirty-three voted explicitly against any provisions for those who did not accept women bishops. Nine voted for some provisions.
I want to concentrate on the Manchester motion, as it has become known. Synod debated the motion, which asked the House of Bishops to use its powers to amend the Measure by incorporating co-ordinate jurisdiction—there are a variety of interpretations as to how that would work in practice—in clause 2 and removing the words “by way of delegation”. That was the substance of the Archbishops’ proposed amendment of July 2010, which Synod rejected by a small margin in one house, but this time, after a thorough debate, all three houses of the Synod clearly voted not to ask the bishops to take such a course.
In an earlier debate on the results of the diocesan Synod voting, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened to ask Synod to allow the bishops one last look at the Measure. It was unclear whether he meant he wanted Synod to support the Manchester motion, and members interpreted his words in both directions. Essentially, however, he has paved the way for the bishops to amend the Measure slightly.
Almost all members of Synod, including both archbishops, are convinced that the Measure must be passed in July for the sake of the credibility of the Church of England. An unknown factor is whether there is a sufficient majority in the House of Laity, and in the light of that the Archbishop of Canterbury is keen to see whether there is a way through that will enable more laity to support the Measure, while not alienating those on the pro-women bishop side, who already find the Measure a huge compromise.
A known factor, however, is that if the bishops amend the Measure, shifting it towards the views of opponents, all the indications are that it will lose support in the House of Clergy and will not gain a sufficient majority there in July. It would also be somewhat peculiar if the House of Bishops used its powers to change a draft Measure about its own reform in the face of the overwhelming support given to that Measure by the wider Church membership through diocesan Synod voting.
As I said, the draft Measure goes to the House of Bishops in May, and it can amend the reforms as it sees fit. If it does, that would be unacceptable to WATCH and most senior women, because it would change the episcopacy in ways that would undermine the Church’s integrity and mission, as well as limiting female bishops’ ministry too far.
When I looked at this issue, I was struck by the fact that women have actively engaged with the bishops in the discussions that have been held so far. In June 2008, senior lay and clergywomen attended a meeting of the College of Bishops to discuss proposals for women bishops. Since then, no women have been part of the discussions in the House of Bishops. It is inconceivable to anyone engaged in equality and diversity work in other contexts that the Church would make the decision about consecrating women as bishops without seriously engaging during this last phase with those who will be most directly affected by that decision.
That is where we are at the moment. If the changes the bishops make to the Measure are small, it will come back to General Synod in July for final approval, which will involve further debate and voting. If the changes are major—I have explained how the Measure could be changed in a major way—the whole process will go backwards, with another consultation among the dioceses and more debates and voting.
If we get to the stage of final approval, it will require a two-thirds majority in each house—the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. That sounds a bit like Labour’s electoral college for electing leaders, which is complicated and rather challenging, with the constituency Labour parties, unions and MPs all having to have their say. The process around the Measure certainly seems to be more about worldly politics than about the great doctrinal principles that opponents of modernisation argue over.
If the two-thirds majority is achieved, and the interests of the minority who can scupper it are overcome, that is still not the end of the process. The Measure then goes before the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, which can refer it to both Houses of Parliament for a vote. In that respect, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Tony Baldry, who will be responsible for taking the proposals through the House of Commons, was quoted in July 2010 as saying,
“be under no illusion about one thing. A difficult task could well become impossible if I had to steer through the House of Commons any measure which left a scintilla of a suggestion that woman bishops were in some way to be second class bishops.”
That is a helpful quote.
We now know that only a tiny minority of parishes oppose women bishops. Under the current legislation, only 3% have asked to be looked after by provincial episcopal visitors, commonly known as “flying bishops”, which is quite a challenging idea. The idea of someone swooping in to provide whatever people need sounds like the Church of England’s version of “The Sweeney”—the attitude to women that underlies that certainly belongs more to the world of “Life on Mars” than to 2012.
People who know change is coming are now looking at any way of delaying it. They are looking at whether there can be more restrictions and at possible ways of avoiding change. Obviously, some members of the Church of England—some priests—have accepted the Pope’s invitation to join the Roman Catholic Church.
However, more than enough has been done to cater for those who have rather challenging attitudes, shall we say, to the world we live in and to the commitment the Church of England and Christianity have always shown, and should always show, to equality, justice and fairness. That group perhaps sees the Church as a monument, rather than as the movement it really should be. To bend any further to the opponents of progress would mean stopping change. Indeed, they would like to reverse the progress that has been made so far.
There is an idea that we are moving far too fast. There are those who claim to support the cause of women bishops, but who believe that we should not proceed too far or too fast. With them, the decision always has to be taken in the future, and decisive moves forward always seem to be a few years ahead.
As the campaign started in 1909, and we are now in 2012, does the hon. Lady think that even opponents of the change would think that 103 years was going too fast?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. St Augustine established the Church in England in 597 AD—1,415 years ago. Discussions about women’s ordination have been going on since the Church of England’s Lambeth conference in 1920. The issue of women bishops was first raised in the Church Assembly in 1966. There is, therefore, quite a background to the issue, and no one could say we are rushing into making this change. It has been formally debated in Synod since 2000, so the accusation that we are moving too far and too fast on gender equality really does not hold water.
The Church of England is a broad Church, and we want it to go forward as a broad Church. I certainly want it to be relevant to the society we live in. I want it to promote faith, decency and good work in the wider community. It is obviously important to respect its past, but we should not live in the past; we should look to how the Church can develop and serve the needs of the community now. We need to serve the people of today and tomorrow, but we are perhaps being held back a little by some of yesterday’s people. A broad Church should not be held back by narrow interests, and there is now broad support for the Measure to go through all its stages.
I hope we will see the first woman bishop very soon. I will certainly persist in putting my questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury, to ensure that progress continues to be made. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does; he is a real champion of equality and fairness in the Church.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Chope. I commend Diana Johnson, who set out carefully and clearly the reasons for the debate, and what, perhaps, should come out of it. It was pleasing to hear, for once, that on the issue in question we are not moving too far and too fast, although clearly the Opposition think that we are doing that with many other issues.
Faith matters have been prominent in recent weeks, with debates about prayers in council meetings and Parliament, and about same sex civil marriage. My view on prayers in council meetings or Parliament is that it is not right for them to be an integral part of the proceedings. I have no objection to their happening immediately prior to the meeting or proceedings, but those who do not participate should not suffer any detriment for that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that semi-serious intervention.
The Government are consulting on how to introduce same sex civil marriages, and I hope that eventually we will introduce legislation to allow those faiths that want to celebrate same sex religious marriage to do so. Clearly, however, we are not at that point. The Government’s consultation is about same sex civil, not religious, marriages. If in the future same sex religious marriage is considered, as with previous measures, compulsion would not operate, but there would be flexibility and scope for faiths that wanted to proceed down that route.
I am not convinced that, as a man and an atheist, I am the best placed person to comment on the issue of women bishops. Indeed, as I walked up the steps to this debate, I tripped quite dramatically, as if there were some sort of intervention, seeking to restrict my comments. However, I welcome interventions from Church leaders on political matters, and I think it is therefore legitimate for politicians to comment on faith matters.
I welcome the decision taken at the Synod and hope that the House of Bishops, the clergy and the laity will accept that there was a strong vote in favour of allowing women bishops into the Church as equal partners with their male colleagues.
First, I apologise for intervening in both the speeches made by my colleagues. I came here with a self-denying ordinance, during Lent, not to intervene in others’ speeches, but I failed.
The first thing to remember is that the Church of England has got this matter sorted. It is now a question for the Government, which is why my hon. Friend the Minister is here, and for Parliament. As a member, still, of the Ecclesiastical Committee, I look forward to a debate, when the matter comes to us, in which the Committee will look as if it is on the side of the Church of England and Parliament, rather than confronting the Church. There has been a tendency in the past 10 years or so, for too many people to say that anything that comes from the Church of England must be suspect and treated with disrespect. We should treat the efforts of the Synod with respect, and remember that our present system is a change from when ecclesiastical canon law had to go through all stages of Parliament, with First, Second and Third Readings. We now have an abbreviated system, which is to be preferred.
Our responsibilities to the Church of England are perhaps the reverse of what happened in 1297, when there was a declaration that Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest had to be read out twice a year in all cathedral churches. Anyone who did not do that was excommunicated. The penalties were rather greater in those days than they are now.
I went through my shelves this morning to see what I had on this subject. I will not read everything out, but it is worth trying to set a context. In a book called “Women of the Bible” by H. V. Morton, which was published in 1940, the author talks about a female gallery unmatched in the world of literature, starting, obviously, with Eve, and working through the women of the Old and New Testaments; but not as ministers. That is something that I found covered rather better in the 1981 PhD thesis of Ben Witherington, which became the book “Women in the Ministry of Jesus”. I have got the paperback copy from 1987. He sensibly takes the reader through how we should view women in the context of their roles in Palestine—in marriage and the family, in religion and as witnesses, teachers and leaders. He goes on to describe women in the teaching of Jesus, in chapters about the physical family, women in the parables of Jesus, women in female imagery in the judgment sayings, and Jesus’s attitudes towards women, reflected in his words. There are then two more substantive chapters, “Women and the Deeds of Jesus”, including “Stories of Help and Healing” and “Jesus’ Attitude Toward Women Reflected in his Actions”; and “Women in the Ministry of Jesus”, including “Mother Mary, Jesus’ Disciple”, “Mary and Martha”, “Women Who Followed Jesus” and “The Place of Women in Jesus’ Ministry”. Then the book goes on to conclusions.
It is clear from what Ben Witherington has to say, and from what is known by scholars, as well as the campaigners, that Jesus had a rare view, for his time, of what women could and should do. We should keep that in mind. Most of what we have began, I think, with the western version of St Luke’s Gospel, in which the translator toned down much of what Luke directly said. There has been a natural tendency, including among some of my friends in both Houses of Parliament, to suggest that everything must suffer from the historic negative: things cannot be done in a new way, because they have never been done that way before. The old law of custom is also rolled out. In the Old Testament, as we know from some of the Bedouin histories, even though someone had done something terribly wrong, if it was customary to do it, they could get away with it. Whether it was murder, taking others’ goods, or slaughtering members of another tribe, custom was a sufficient defence. I think that we should look for challenge, and say that custom is no longer a sufficient defence for perpetuating what is clearly ineffective, and in many senses unjust.
I want briefly to consider the relationship of Church and state. F.D. Bruce’s book, “The Legal and Constitutional Relationship Between Church and State in England”, published in 1910, sets out clearly the role of establishment. It is not the Church of England propping up Parliament; it is Parliament’s role in making sure that the Church serves the nation. That applies to the UK Parliament as it is now just as much as it applied to the English Parliament, before the unions that created Great Britain and the United Kingdom. A rather good book that is relevant is from the Royal Historical Society “Studies in History”: “Representatives of the Lower Clergy in Parliament, 1295-1340” by J. H. Denton and J. P. Dooley.
Let me now turn to “Women and Holy Orders”. In 1928, Charles E. Raven, who was Canon at Liverpool and Chaplain to the King and later became the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge university, wrote a book that effectively epitomised what the suffrage movement meant in the Church of England in terms of getting the vote, which was established when Royal Assent was given to the suffrage Act—the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928. It was then that the League of Church Militant, which had offices at Church House, Westminster, was dissolved because it was thought that the job had been basically done. However, from 1928 to now, we have had arguments over the ordination of women as deacons rather than deaconesses and the decision, eventually, to ordain women as priests. Now we come to the decision—this could have been taken at the same time as the decision to ordain women as priests, but out of kindness to the last ditchers it was deferred—about women being ordained as bishops.
My hon. Friend the Minister may say that this matter does not have a great deal to do with the Government, but, to the extent that Government determine parliamentary time, it does. The matter of the ordination of women as bishops should not be left to the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that the Government will accept that they have responsibility for providing parliamentary time if the Ecclesiastical Committee decides that it is expedient to put the Synod’s Measure to both Houses of Parliament.
I pay tribute to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend Tony Baldry who in his first series of questions in that role uttered words equivalent to the ones that he later gave in public and to the Synod. He said that Parliament will not stand for backsliding, significant delay and discrimination, and that is right. I also pay tribute to the Synod for the decisions that it has made, even though it did not follow what the archbishops had indicated that they would find expedient.
Lastly, let me reflect on Margaret Hebblethwaite’s “Six New Gospels” in which, in a fictional way, she has New Testament women telling their stories. We have an image of Jesus through the eyes of six different women. She says that this can be looked at metaphorically and literally. The metaphorical question about whether women are fully capable of doing anything that a man can do has been settled for two millennia. The question of whether we can translate that into practice will, in the end, come down to whether the Church of England can act by itself or whether it has to wait for more of Christendom to join us.
One of the great things about the Church of England, for whatever reason it was established, is that it actually has the freedom to make its own decisions and we are part of that process. It is about time that we took that decision. Please, Synod, pass this legislation on women bishops to us. I hope that the Ecclesiastical Committee will not make a fool of itself: I trust it to do what is right. When it comes to being debated and decided on in the House of Commons—I cannot speak for the House of Lords; I leave that to my wife, because a woman’s place is in the House…of Lords—I hope that we will make a decision that will allow women bishops to join the House of Lords and then help decide what the future of that institution will be as well.
I start with an apology: I am due to chair the Committee that is considering the Civil Aviation Bill very shortly. That may take me 50,000 feet closer to God, but it will not allow me to hear the winding-up speeches in this debate, and for that I apologise to colleagues.
I am a fully paid-up reactionary. This is not part of the debate, but it has been raised, so I will make my own comment. I happen to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman and anything else is a partnership and should remain as such.
On the issue that we are debating this morning, I have a very strong view indeed. Diana Johnson and others have referred to equality. However, this is about not equality, but the right person for the job. As with the House of Commons, so with the Church of England and others; we need the best people in the job. Simply, ladies who have been ordained have proved that they are very good. There may be some bad women vicars, but I can think of one or two bad male vicars as well. In whatever walk of life—whether in the House of Commons, the Church of England, industry, medicine or education—we need the best people in the job. Some of those best people will be men and some will be women. If there are more best women than there are best men, there should be more women bishops than there are male bishops. If that is a counter-reactionary point of view, I apologise to my hon. Friends who might expect me to take an alternative view.
“How long, Oh Lord, how long?”
This has been going on for far too long. The moment is not with us; it is way past and the decision should have been taken by now. The bishops will be doing the Church, of which I am proud to be a member, no service whatever if they duck this issue. It is time to move forward, and I hope very much indeed that we in the House of Commons and our colleagues in the upper
House will be given the opportunity to vote for this Measure and to see women enjoying the episcopacy as soon as possible.
I hope that it will be of some help to the House if I am allowed to make a contribution in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. If I read this debate correctly, it will not miss the point. The debate, which was introduced excellently by Diana Johnson, has had contributions from an avowed atheist, the churchwarden of St Margaret’s and a resolute reactionary, and they all supported the Measure to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England and want it passed as soon as possible.
We have a Church of England that is subject to parliamentary statute, and has been ever since the first Act of Supremacy, when we broke with Rome. However, in 1919, Parliament decided that the Church of England should have its own legislature, the Church Assembly then and the General Synod now.
As the hon. Lady pointed out, the General Synod is made up of three houses: the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity. Resolutions from the General Synod—Measures—have to come to Parliament.
May I say to my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley that I hope that the General Synod will agree to adopt this Measure in July? In anticipation of that, I have met Lord Lloyd, the Chair of the Ecclesiastical Committee, which is made up of a number of Members of this House and a number of Members of the House of Lords, to discuss the Committee meeting in October to consider and approve the Measure.
Leaving nothing to chance, I have already had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons. Using the precedent of what happened in respect of the Measures for ordaining women as deacons and priests, it is deemed to be appropriate to consider this Measure on the Floor of the House, rather than upstairs in Committee. The understanding that I have reached with the Leader of the House is that we will set aside half a day—we hope, some time in November—to approve the Measure in this House. It has to be approved separately in the House of Lords, and I hope that it will do similarly. If the Measure is approved by General Synod in July, it is my ambition to do everything possible to have it pass all its legislative stages before the end of this year. We would therefore hope to see the first women bishops appointed as early as 2014. I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West and for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) that that would be significant in terms of the timetable relating to reform of the House of Lords.
The other day, the Queen was at Lambeth palace to meet faith representatives, and at the conclusion of her visit she made a short but very powerful speech. With the leave of the House, I will just quote two paragraphs from that speech. Her Majesty said:
“Our religions provide critical guidance for the way we live our lives and for the way in which we treat each other. Many of the values and ideas we take for granted in this and other countries originate in the ancient wisdom of our traditions. Even the concept of a Jubilee is rooted in the Bible… We should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.
It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”
It is always important to remember that the Church of England is, as Her Majesty pointed out, the established Church and as such it has very specific responsibilities to be a national Church. This year, we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, but it is worth recalling that the Book of Common Prayer is itself an annexe to the Act of Uniformity. Indeed, later this year, the Parliamentary Archives will display the original Act of Uniformity, with the original Book of Common Prayer, which, as I say, was attached to the Act as an annexe. So Parliament has always had an important role in the life of the Church of England and the Church of England has had a responsibility in our nation’s life to be a national Church.
Regarding the concerns that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North expressed about the Equality Act 2010, it is important to recognise that any Measure from the General Synod must come to both Houses of Parliament to be approved. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for quoting my comments at the General Synod shortly after I was appointed as the Second Church Estates Commissioner in July 2010, when I made it very clear to the General Synod that I did not think there was any prospect of getting through Parliament any Measure that gave the impression that women bishops were second-class bishops. I have made it very clear that if the Church of England is to have bishops, women bishops must be just like male bishops, regarded and respected as male bishops are, and with the same roles, responsibilities and rights.
It is also important to remember that we are dealing with a Church and that, as is set out in the Preface to the Declaration of Assent:
“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.”
Therefore, the General Synod and the whole Church have been grappling with issues that are of genuine concern—indeed, heartfelt concern—for large numbers of individuals, and the General Synod and the whole Church are absolutely right to have taken time to ensure that those issues are thoroughly debated and resolved. It is a fact that every deanery in every diocese in England has had the opportunity to debate them at length and, as the hon. Lady pointed out in her opening comments, 42 out of 44 of the dioceses have voted firmly in support of the Measure to enable women to become bishops.
I very much hope that, when the House of Bishops considers the resolution from the February Synod, it gives it careful consideration. However, given that a majority of the members of the February Synod voted in favour of women becoming bishops—in other words, they supported those resolutions that enable that prospect to move forward—I would be extremely surprised if the House of Bishops did anything other than to enable the Measure to move forward, and I have every confidence in the good sense and good judgment of the House of Bishops.
When we come to the Church of England’s General Synod in July, I very much hope that even those who have been opposed to women becoming bishops will recognise the overwhelming support within the Church of England for the Measure to go forward. In fact, if 42 out of 44 dioceses have voted in favour of women becoming bishops, it would look very perverse—indeed, it would look ridiculous—if the General Synod in July was to use its convoluted voting mechanisms not to allow that Measure to move forward. Between now and July, I hope that everyone will search their soul and I also hope that, if people are opposed to the Measure, they will recognise that there comes a point when it is necessary to acknowledge that, in the interests and well-being of the Church of England, the Measure must make progress.
We have always wished to continue to be a broad Church, maintaining space for all those who wish to remain within the Church of England. However, there must be a recognition that this issue has been deliberated for a long time and that it has been considered carefully, with everyone in the Church of England having had the opportunity to make a thoughtful and deliberative contribution to the debate, and that—as demonstrated by the votes in the dioceses during the last year—the views of the members of the Church of England are very clear.
I hope, therefore, that by the end of this year Parliament will have passed a Measure that will enable women to become bishops. Of course, although that parliamentary business would be dealt with in Government time, it would not be capable of being whipped business. Consequently, I will look to all those who have urged and exhorted me on this issue during Church Commissioners questions and elsewhere to be in the main Chamber to support the Measure when it comes to the Floor of the House. Wherever that support comes from—whether from atheists or resolved reactionaries—it is very important that the House of Commons demonstrates its support for women bishops. In due course, I hope that I and others here will be able to be at Westminster abbey or St Paul’s cathedral when the archbishops consecrate the first woman bishop.
We know precisely what my hon. Friend means by that, but it is worth spelling out for the record that there are women bishops in other parts of the Anglican communion.
There are of course women bishops elsewhere in the Anglican communion. I am glad to say that some of them were present at the February Synod, and I was very glad to be able to entertain two of them, the Bishop of Rhode Island and the Bishop of Nova Scotia, here in the House while they were at General Synod in February. It was interesting to hear them talk about their experiences as women bishops and how quickly they had become fully recognised in their leadership role as bishops within their own provinces, countries and communities. And why not?
As has been said, we now have women in leadership roles throughout the Church of England in every position other than as bishops. There are now as many women as there are men coming forward to be ordained as priests. I am sure that it will be the same in other hon. Members’ constituencies. In my own constituency, the vicar of Banbury is a woman. The vicar of Bicester is a woman. The vicar in my own parish, from whom I take communion each Sunday, is a woman. They are all excellent examples of leadership within the Church, but my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West makes a good and important point. I hope that I will be present when the archbishops consecrate the first woman bishop within the Church of England.
When does the hon. Gentleman think that might be? In light of the timetable that he thinks we might complete this year in Parliament, when does he think we might see the first woman bishop?
Sorry, I hoped that I had made that clear. If General Synod approves the Measure in July, with God’s good grace and the help of Members of Parliament, I hope that we can get it through by the end of this year and that we will see the first women consecrated as bishops in 2014. Obviously, that depends on a whole number of variables, including the work of the Crown Nominations Commission and so forth, but I hope that we will see such a timetable.
At the consecration service, the archbishop addresses the ordinands. I will conclude with a piece of text, because it is a beautiful piece, but it is also worth reminding ourselves what function the bishops actually perform. If one considers this text, there is absolutely no reason why women should not perform any of these responsibilities just as well as men:
“Bishops are called to serve and care for the flock of Christ. Mindful of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, they are to love and pray for those committed to their charge, knowing their people and being known by them. As principal ministers of word and sacrament, stewards of the mysteries of God, they are to preside at the Lord’s table and to lead the offering of prayer and praise. They are to feed God’s pilgrim people, and so build up the Body of Christ. They are to baptize and confirm, nurturing God’s people in the life of the Spirit and leading them in the way of holiness. They are to discern and foster the gifts of the Spirit in all who follow Christ, commissioning them to minister in his name. They are to preside over the ordination of deacons and priests, and join together in the ordination of bishops. As chief pastors, it is their duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church, speaking in the name of God and expounding the gospel of salvation. With the Shepherd’s love, they are to be merciful, but with firmness; to minister discipline, but with compassion. They are to have a special care for the poor, the outcast, and those who are in need. They are to seek out those who are lost and lead them home with rejoicing, declaring the absolution and forgiveness of sins to those who turn to Christ. Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles, they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice, and work for righteousness and peace in all the world.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend Diana Johnson on taking up the baton after our colleague, my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, was unable to start the debate today. She has done it admirably. I think I am the only ordained person in the Church of England speaking today, unless anyone is hiding something from us. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Tony Baldry sounded remarkably ordained as he delivered his final intonations.
I remember going to Ripon College Cuddesdon in the 1980s. I arrived in 1983. The year before, there had been one woman in training at Cuddesdon, which was generally known as the bishop-making college. In the year I arrived, there were 13 women. It was the first time that the college had had to make real accommodation for women. Cuddesdon was a strange place, with 72 people living in the same space: eating, drinking, worshipping and studying. It was very intense, and I think it was difficult for many women. Frankly, they were given a hell of a time by some of the men. I have to confess that, in some regards, I think that was because some of the men were gay and did not want women intruding in their world. That is not true of the vast majority of gay men in the Church, who are supportive of women’s ordination and ministry, but it was certainly true at the time. Indeed, the Church was going through a difficult period because it did not know what to do about inclusive—or not inclusive—language. Should it refer to “all men” or “all men and women”, especially in the creed and much of the liturgy? Some of us ostentatiously refused to say just the word “men”. In retrospect, some of that feels a little childish, but the role of women was hardly respected or honoured at all in the Church, and there was a real conflict for many women. There still is in many parts of the Church, where the role model for a woman is as a virgin and a mother at the same time. Not many will be able to achieve that.
In the Church hierarchy, which had the vicar and curate, both of them men at the time, few women were allowed to be lay readers, and some churches refused to allow them to give communion. It felt as though women were fine for making cups of tea, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned. They were fine for ironing the linen for the altar and for mending the cassocks, the albs and the humeral veils and so on. They were even fine for polishing the silver, and obviously for arranging the flowers, but when it came to the serious business of running the Church, that had to be reserved for men. I know that this has changed in many places, but it feels as though the work is not yet complete. As people were talking about the time that the change is taking, I was reminded of Longfellow’s brief poem:
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.”
In other words, I think we will get there, but it is taking a long time. It feels as though those who are not prepared to step outside the Church because they are frightened are none the less trying to die in the ditch of dilatoriness. They are just trying to delay, making it far more difficult for the Church to embrace its historic mission.
There is a sad history of some people in the Church, including senior leaders, not understanding how grossly offensive they have been at times. Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London, said that a woman was no more ordainable than a potato. That was a man who was meant to be providing spiritual leadership, not just to the men in his diocese but to everybody else as well.
I once asked Graham Leonard why he did not oppose the ordination of women as deacons, although he opposed their ordination as priests and bishops. I asked, “Does it come down to the fact that you believe women were ordained as deacons before, but not as priests or bishops?” He said yes. That is a plain example of the historical negative, let alone his other remarks.
Yes. It rather reminds me of Cardinal Martini—a fine name—who was asked in 1998 or 1999 whether there would ever be women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. He said, “Not in this millennium.” Obviously, the millennium was about to come to an end, so I hope that he was anticipating change swiftly, and not within 1,000 years.
Senior clerics have sometimes not realised what bruises their supposedly theological utterings have inflicted on many women in the Church who have felt seriously called to work for God, but have not been allowed to due to some flippant remark by a bishop or an archbishop. When it seems to be solely about manoeuvring and whether there are two votes above two thirds in each of the three houses, it feels as if humanity has been lost and it has become a political game rather than anything else. That is when the Church loses adherents, members and the passionate, loving support of those who want to be there with it.
A key argument that many people advance against the ordination of women, particularly as bishops, relates to the fact that Jesus supposedly chose no female disciples. We do not actually know that. If asked how many disciples there were, most people would probably say 12, but we have no idea how many there were. In Luke 10, Jesus sends out 70 in pairs, but the chapter does not say whether they were men or women. It says that there was a large crowd, and that the group was in addition to others that he had already sent out.
People say, “All right, but there were only 12 apostles. We must know that.” Again, it is difficult. In Romans 16:7, St Paul refers to two apostles, Andronicus and Junia. There is only one instance in the whole of classical history where Junia is a man, and I suspect that it is not this one. Those two people, probably husband and wife, were in prison with Paul, and he described them as apostles.
Likewise, in Matthew 10, Jesus appoints 12 apostles and sends them out. I suspect that there were 12 in Matthew’s account in particular because he wanted to say that they were going to the lost sheep of Israel; it is about the 12 tribes of Israel as much as anything else.
However, if hearty adherents of the Church were asked to name the 12 apostles, I bet that most would not be able to. It is also difficult to be precise about who the apostles were. The gospel of St John names Nathaniel, who is not included in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Mark and Matthew both name Thaddeus, who does not appear in Luke. Instead, Luke names Jude the son of James, often referred to as Jude the obscure—as opposed to Jude the extremely not obscure: Iscariot—yet Jude the obscure is one of the apostles most frequently cited.
My only point about all that quibbling is that I do not think the whole decision whether women should be bishops can rest on the idea that Jesus supposedly called only men. He undoubtedly had many women followers, who certainly considered themselves disciples. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North referred to the scene in the garden on Easter Sunday morning, where it was a woman who first experienced the resurrection, and women undoubtedly played a significant role in the early Church.
People sometimes have too light an understanding of the Bible and use it flippantly. I remember, many years ago, somebody complaining to me in a letter that we kept producing new Bibles. He said, “King James wrote the Bible in the 17th century, and I don’t see why we have to keep on translating it.” King James was an interesting person, but I do not think that he wrote the Bible.
People often refer to the story in Genesis. Genesis does not tell a creation story; it tells at least two stories. In the first, in Genesis 1:27, man and woman are created at the same time:
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
It is absolutely, point-blank clear that it was all done in one fell swoop.
Genesis 2 gives a completely different story. Interestingly, God decides that man is on his own, so He first decides to give him the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky, then creates woman out of man’s rib, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North said. I do not think that anyone thought when those stories were initially recounted that someone would be standing in Parliament today saying, “You cannot ordain women bishops because God decided it,” and that that was a historically accurate version of events. I leave aside the tiny point that in the Bible, Adam and Eve had two sons. How that could lead to the rest of humanity, I do not understand.
Interestingly, of course, in nearly all the Old Testament creation narrative, the word used for the Holy Spirit is “ruach”, a feminine word. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is clearly female. In many interpretations in the later history of spirituality, beautifully recounted in Rowan Williams’s splendid first book “The Wound of Knowledge”, the spirit is female. The overlay of history has often made spirituality seem extremely masculine—martyrs and all the rest of it, and an authority structure left in the hands of men—but the spiritual insights of women in our history have been every bit as significant as those of men. Our own country gave us
Dame Julian of Norwich, although a lot of people think that Julian of Norwich was a man. Her spiritual insights are profound, and one need not look far, to Teresa of Avila and many others around the world, to see the same thing.
The hon. Member for Banbury, who should at least be right hon. by now—it must be imminent; I feel grace falling upon him—asked whether the Church of England can do it alone. For a start, it is not doing it alone. Other Churches have had women as bishops and in prominent roles for many decades, particularly some Lutheran Churches, to which we are allied. In addition, as has been said, every single diocese in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America now has women priests, and ECUSA has had a woman primate—“primate” is always an odd word in the Anglican communion. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and even the Anglican communion in Cuba have had women suffragan bishops. We are not on our own.
Secondly, I thought that one of the fundamental teachings of the Anglican and Catholic Churches and, for that matter, the whole Orthodox communion, is that the sacrament does not depend on the person. That is to say that even if the person who is giving communion, who has stood up and recited, “who, in the same night that He was betrayed, took bread” and all the rest of it, is a filthy, evil, horrible and nasty person—indeed, many of them in the history of the Christian Church have been so—that does not mean that the sacrament does not work. That is absolutely essential. Anyone who believes that the personality of an ordained woman somehow means that the sacrament that she presents does not work is living in theological cloud cuckoo land.
When I was at theological college, I remember clearly that Michael Ramsey, perhaps one of the greatest archbishops, was asked a question by a high Church Anglican trainee ordinand at St Stephen’s house in Oxford—the very high Church college. What should someone in a poor parish do if they had just bought an expensive new altar carpet costing several thousands of pounds, and some consecrated communion wine was spilt over it? I think the high Anglican lad thought that the correct answer would be that since the wine had been consecrated, the carpet would have to be burned. Michael Ramsey said, “Well, first of all, why a church in a poor parish would buy an expensive carpet, I do not understand. Secondly, and much more importantly, I am sure that if God knows how to get into it, He knows how to get back out of it.” I am absolutely sure that if we were to make a mistake with the consecration of woman bishops, God would none the less somehow know how to make sure that we were all still receiving valid sacraments through them.
The reverend, learned hon. Gentleman could have reminded us about number 26 of the articles of religion, which says that things done by evil men can still be sacramental. It refers to evil men, but not to evil women.
Several articles need a little bit of reform. When I was a curate, my cassock had 28 buttons, and I did not do them all up for that very reason, but I have always been a little heterodox. I feel a bit disturbed when the hon. Gentleman refers to me as reverend; I think that is over.
The Church of England surely offers something different. Plenty of other Churches do not have women bishops or allow women to perform a full ministry, but I believe that the Church of England developed not just because of Henry VIII’s licentiousness, but because it had something genuine to offer—a middle ground between Protestantism and Catholicism, and a belief that the rational can inform the spiritual and that disciplinary autonomy in this country was important if there was to be a mission to everyone in this country, regardless of whatever the Pope might say, do or insist upon from over the seas. That was an important mission, and I think it survives today. I have a terrible fear that some people want the Church of England to become a sect and not be a Church at all, and I hope that that will be put behind us.
A bishop has to be the centre of unity in the diocese. That is why all the proposals, including those from the two archbishops, have completely misunderstood the theology of episcopacy. If someone is not the centre of unity, surely they cannot be the bishop. Any proposal that parishes should be able to opt out of a bishop because the bishop is a woman is not only fundamentally offensive and demeaning to the ministry of women—we should either do it or not do it—but will simply create a new style of wholly inappropriate schism in the Church. We were wrong to have flying bishops, and we would be wrong to advance similar proposals.
I hope that when the bishops meet, soon, they do not make any changes at all—certainly no changes of substance. I also hope that the Government will not shilly-shally about providing time for us to get on with it. The Ecclesiastical Committee should not have to wait until October. I am sure that it will take just one day. Why can it not meet in July, during the Olympics, or whenever?
We will make all speed, but the reason is simply that various pieces of legislative drafting have to be done. General Synod does not meet until mid-July, and the House rises quite early this year because of the Olympics, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the work will be done with all possible speed.
It did not sound like it. I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman—he has said some sensible things on the matter and I know that he is on the side of the angels—but please do not use all that language; just get on with it.
In the end, the only words on the issue that matter to me are in Galatians 3:28, which I am sure all the people down the other end of the Chamber could repeat verbatim with me, but we might be using different translations of the Bible, so let us not try:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. Sadly, the Minister for Equalities, Lynne Featherstone cannot be here today, as she is on other important ministerial duties at the United Nations in
New York, but she would have very much liked to reply in person. I hope that you will find me an agreeable alternative.
I thank Mrs Hodgson for originally securing the debate and congratulate Diana Johnson on taking up the baton, as has been pointed out. I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend Tony Baldry, who has given a lot of clarity on the Church of England’s case. It has been enlightening to hear about the parliamentary process that we may see in the future.
The Church forms a vital part of our culture and heritage, and the fabric of our nation. Today’s debate is about women in the Church of England. Women already play a vital role at a number of levels, from the top to the bottom. Some of the best vicars in the UK are women. Taking a totally random example—from Southend—Louise Williams, the vicar of St Andrew’s church, does an excellent and inspirational job, not because she is a woman, but because she is good at her job. My hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale described himself as a reactionary, but went on to say that the issue is about getting the right person for the job. That does not sound reactionary to me. I was heartened to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury say that 50% of people in training now are women.
Moving from Southend, another, somewhat different, example is that of Her Majesty the Queen—a woman at the head of the Church of England. From top to bottom, there are already women operating successfully in the Church of England.
Just to give an anecdote, when the Lord Bishop of London took up his post in November 1995, he was presented to the head of the Church—the Queen—by the Secretary of State, who was also a woman. Of those three, the only one who was allowed to be a bishop in those days, if otherwise qualified, was Richard Chartres, because of his chromosomes. It seems absurd that he could be presented by one woman to another woman for a job that both women were disqualified from.
We are in Lent, and my hon. Friend has his own self-imposed rule. I am rather glad he broke it again; that was a good intervention. He also talked about history. If we look back at the decision-making process, it will seem even more ridiculous than it does now.
I would like to pay tribute to all the men and women in the Church who have been involved in invaluable work. The Church of England and those who serve in it have a special place in this country and in this Parliament, particularly through the representation in Parliament of the 26 senior bishops and archbishops. My hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley worried me a bit by turning up with a book on the period 1295-1340. That is not something the Minister for Equalities had familiarised me with in my briefing. I will speak to her about that on her return from New York.
As a consequence of the special relationship between the Church and the state, all our citizens, whether members of the Church or not, have a legitimate interest in what the Church says and does. Therefore, it is very appropriate for us to debate such issues here in this Parliament. It is good that my right hon. Friend Tom Brake has contributed to the debate, because that demonstrates the issue is not only about the Church of England and Christianity; it is about people of all faiths, and people of no faith or no defined faith.
One of the key issues surrounding the place of women in the Church today is the question of women bishops, which we have discussed significantly. Although I want to say something on that specific question, I would like to point out that just because we have a special place for the Church within the state, it does not mean that the state should on a daily basis be quick or eager to involve itself in every single internal debate of the Church—or, indeed, that it should comment on its doctrines and practices. That very much applies to the question of who should or should not be bishops, and the associated questions of pastoral care for those who take a contrary view to that the Synod appears to be taking.
As we have heard, the direction of travel seems to be one way. Chris Bryant said that we will get there in the end. The debate is about the timing of that travel, not the direction. As we have heard, the Church of England is moving forward and away from a position whereby only men can be appointed bishops. I understand and appreciate that the Church wants to consider the feelings of those who disagree strongly with that move, including those who consider it is not possible as a matter of doctrine for a woman to be made a bishop.
That question—how best to provide the appropriate support and pastoral care for those in the Church who cannot accept or are having problems accepting this change—is vital. I recognise that dealing with it is a difficult and sensitive task, but it is not one on which it is beneficial for the Government to intervene. It is for the Church itself to decide whether it will appoint women bishops. We have been given examples by various hon. Members of women bishops elsewhere—Nova Scotia, Rhode Island and, indeed, Cuba. We need to consider what arrangements should be put in place to support those who cannot accept the change.
As has been explained, once the General Synod has finished its work, the matter will come before the Ecclesiastical Committee and then the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury for explaining the conversations he has had with the Leader of the House about providing time when necessary on the Floor of the House to deal with the matter appropriately. I will do anything I can to facilitate that process, both from the Leader of the House’s perspective, the Whips’ perspective and the perspective of the Government Equalities Office. We will provide any assistance we can to ensure that things are not unnecessarily delayed.
It would be very helpful if, immediately after the business relating to the Measure, the Government could schedule a piece of Government business that necessitates a three-line Whip.
People keep calling me a gentleman. I assume that the Queen’s Speech will be in a few months’ time. Will the Measure be in the Queen’s Speech? Do the Government expect to announce it as part of their legislative programme for the year ahead?
I do not think that it is a Government Bill in that sense, so I would not expect it to be mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. However, I am not privy to that speech.
I shall turn to the specific points that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North made so ably in picking up this brief. She drew comparisons with the Labour electoral college. I genuinely hope that she is wrong in that comparison, given the problems that there have been.
I am genuinely sympathetic and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always nice.
On the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, he used his own words to repeat the underlying point that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North made: if there is a scintilla of deviation from what originally went through the General Synod, it might be slightly more challenging to get things through Parliament. A number of people involved in the process—the Synod, the bishops and the laity—will listen very carefully to the words he has chosen today and the words the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North chose. They will reflect very carefully on that because it is my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who will take the Measure through. My hon. Friend has been in detailed discussions with everyone about the subject, whether they are a reactionary, as he mentioned, or they are on the other side of the argument. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North said that my hon. Friend will be held to account because parliamentary questions will be tabled to the Second Church Estates Commissioner. That is pretty much a polite parliamentary threat—his card is marked.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West failed to give up making interventions for Lent, although I am somewhat surprised he did it so early. I hope that he has more success later. He raised a number of very interesting points. He will have to invite me to his library because it must be incredibly extensive if he has such a detailed knowledge on the subject.
I will not predict when the first woman bishop of the Church of England will be appointed. However, I was interested to note that my hon. Friend the Member for
Banbury was firm in his view that it could be as early as 2014. I, too, hope to attend such an event; it would be a great privilege.
The hon. Member for Rhondda was very entertaining in his speech. I think we would agree that my biblical knowledge is not as good as his. However, I think I can go out on a limb—although it does not say so in my briefing—and say that the King James Bible was not written by King James. We do have some commonality. His speeches are always amusing, but I was worried when he mentioned Cardinal Martini because I thought we might have a seedy “any place, any time, any where” joke. I am glad that he steered us clear of such things. I think my local priest who took me through Sunday school and the confirmation process would be somewhat shocked to know that I am responding on this matter for the Government. If I had known when I was 14 that I would be responding—
As the hon. Lady said, I would have paid an awful lot more attention.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda for not probing me on a number of deeply theological questions because that may be a slight chink in my armour. Given I have a young family, on Sundays, I occasionally do things other than attend church. He gave us a very interesting tour de force on the apostles and, at times, I found that I was engaging in the debate and listening, which is always an unwise thing to do as a Minister and will no doubt worry the civil servants. He will have to explain to me at some point his rebellious streak. He is always very entertaining in the House of Commons, but not doing up one of his 28 buttons is not as rebellious as he has been on a number of other things.
It is not an unknown fact that a lot of clergy in the Church of England do not subscribe to all the articles of religion that we are meant to sign up to when we are ordained. In fact, on the night before I was ordained, when I had to give my oath of allegiance, the bishop who ordained me said, “It’s all right; I crossed my fingers as well.”
I note that with interest. It was fascinating to understand the issues surrounding training, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in some detail. I look forward to finding out more. In conclusion, I genuinely wish the General Synod and the Church every success in their endeavours to sort out this very sensitive issue. I will follow the progress of the matter very carefully.