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General Synod: Archbishop Rowan speaks in debate on women bishops

Wednesday 8th February 2012

The Church of England's General Synod is currently looking at the legislative process designed to make it possible for women to be bishops while also making provision for those who, for theological reasons, will not be able to receive their ministry.

The Archbishop of Canterbury made the following contribution to the General Synod debate on the Business Committee’s Report on the Reference of the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure to the Dioceses.

A transcript of the Archbishop's speech follows, and an audio file is also available.  Click to read the Report by the Business Committee on the Reference to the Dioceses.


Following debate and amendment, the motion

'That this Synod call upon the House of Bishops, in exercise of its powers under Standing Order 60(b), to amend the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure in the manner proposed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York at the Revision Stage for the draft Measure.'

was carried in the following form:

'That this Synod

(a) noting the significant support the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure has received in the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity of diocesan synods, and

(b) desiring that the draft Measure be returned to the Synod for consideration on the Final Approval Stage substantially unamended so that it can be seen if the proposals embodied in it in the form in which it has been referred to the dioceses can attain the level of support required to achieve Final Approval, request the House of Bishops in the exercise of its power under Standing Order 60(b) not to amend the draft Measure substantially.'



The Archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention 8 February 2012, during the General Synod debate on the Business Committee’s Report on the Reference of the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure to the Dioceses

What has emerged from the process in the diocesan synods and what has emerged in the discussion of this synod in the last couple of years seems to me to clarify two absolutely essential features of where we corporately as a Church of England want to be.  We want clarity, it seems, about a single structure for the diocesan episcopate.  We have not been sympathetic to any idea of parallel or quasi-independent jurisdictions.  We want to see, as has often been said, bishops being bishops rather than different kinds of bishops with different kinds of powers.   The second thing that has emerged very clearly from this process is that we want to make provision for a minority that respects their theological integrity and their need for pastoral continuity:  not only for theological integrity you might say, but for some sort of ecclesial and sacramental integrity.  That’s already ‘encoded’ (if you’ll excuse the expression) in the Measure that we’ve looked at: clarity about a single structure for the diocesan episcopate;  clarity about a provision for the minority respecting their theological integrity and the need for pastoral and ecclesial integrity. 

It’s in the light of those two things that I want to offer a couple of reflections on the implications of those principles in the light of some of the debate we’ve already had, and with an eye to some of the debate we’ll have later today.


First then – I’d like to pick up some of the questions that were asked yesterday about this question of ‘derivation’ and ‘delegation’, and see if that can be clarified at all for members of Synod.  (As you will be aware, attempts by the Archbishop of Canterbury to clarify any theological point are likely to end in its obfuscation!  But I hope you’ll bear with me.)

When a person is ordained, they receive authority.  That’s the language we use in our Ordinal. They receive the Church’s authority to preach and to teach and to minister the sacraments.  That’s now part of who they are within the Church.  Its part of how the Church recognises their calling to a specific ministry.  But the Church exists in ordered form—legally and canonically ordered form—and somebody who has received authority in that general sense through ordination, then has (to use a rather crude metaphor) to be ‘plugged in’ to the legal and canonical system.  They have to receive a licence to exercise that ordained authority legally and canonically here, here, or here.  And that’s the cornerstone of the distinction between derivation and delegation.  Any ordained person receives—‘derives’—the authority for preaching, teaching and ministering the sacraments in general as part of who they are before God by the Church’s act in ordination.  Ordained persons also receive in various ways licence to perform those functions in a specific context.  And that’s where delegation comes in.  Because if the context is a diocese where there is a legally, canonically constituted diocesan bishop then that’s the legal authority which lets a deacon or a priest, or another bishop, perform acts within that area.  It doesn’t in any sense qualify the authority they receive from the Church at large.  It gives them intelligible place, a defensible and legitimate place, within the workings of a Christian family within a diocese.  It’s the diocesan bishop in effect saying, ‘Here is my licence to do what I would otherwise do’, and that’s why we say ‘delegation’.

Now, I suspect that if we get that distinction right we might avoid some of the confusion that is around which sometimes seems to assume that delegation must mean you derive your authority as an ordained person from the person who ‘lets you do it’.  And just to reinforce that point, you’ll notice that in the draft Measure and in the draft Code it’s quite clear that a diocesan bishop inviting another diocesan bishop to act in his or her diocese, does it by way of delegation.  There’s no suggestion that the other diocesan bishop somehow becomes a ‘subordinate’ (in terms of theological order) to the bishop making the request and issuing the permission.  Likewise it’s the case that in some circumstances the ordinary authority of a diocesan is exercised by someone who isn’t a bishop.  For example in a vacancy-in-see, or in a period between a bishop being confirmed as bishop-elect and being ordained as a bishop.

All of that might sound a little bit full of fishbones but I hope that if we can keep that clear we may avoid some of the misunderstandings that are around, and allow ourselves just a little bit more lee-way in thinking about delegation and why and how it matters.  The authority that is received from the Church at large is received in ordination: nothing prejudices that.  Somebody has to make decisions about what is good order in a particular area.


Now, the second point relates to the second principle that I enunciated at the beginning – provision for minorities that respects theological integrity and pastoral continuity.  And this is where the phrase ‘male bishop’ [in the draft Measure] has come into the sights of a lot of discussion lately.  The draft Measure itself and the draft Code very amply both recognise that (in the terms used yesterday) this is a ‘necessary’ but not ‘sufficient’ criterion.  The draft Code makes very plain that resistance to having a bishop who is not male is the result, not the starting point of a theological argument.  Theological convictions have to be established which—to use the phraseology of the draft Code (paragraphs 90 and 114 if you’re interested)—give rise to a problem with a female bishop.

The difficulty many feel is that to leave the phrase ‘male bishop’ in the draft Measure insufficiently recognises where that particular point comes in the argument people are trying to make.  It doesn’t go to the root of it.  In other words the theological conviction is not about male bishops as such:  it arises from certain other convictions.  And one of my questions about the draft Measure is whether anything can be done there, and / or in the Code of Practice, to overcome the resistance that is felt to that phrase, and to do better justice to what it rests upon.  If I’m right about the two fundamental principles, that’s not a substantial change in the Measure.  But it does of course then raise the question of how, whether in Measure or in Code, we do proper justice to this second point about theological integrity and pastoral continuity and ecclesial integrity;  how we do that without over-legislating, over-prescribing in way that creates parallel church identities by default.  And that I suppose is what a couple of years ago the Archbishop of York and myself were feeling our way for in the now notorious ‘archbishops’ amendment’.  If you look at some of the background literature that was provided at the time with that amendment, precisely the two principles with which I began were enunciated as the principles on which that amendment was based.  Whether we were right or not to cast it in that form, I’m not at all sure.  But looking forward to the debate later today, I would quite like Synod—no, I’d very much like Synod—to consider whether leaving a door open for the bishops to revisit some of those questions in the light of where we have got to might not a good idea at this juncture. 

I think, you see, that we have a very high degree of clarity about the basic principles here.  I think we have the possibility of some bits of fine-tuning that will take us a little bit further.  To use the analogy I’ve used in this chamber before: it’s a little bit like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with God’s finger and Adam’s just about within touching distance!

If there is a way of clarifying these last couple of points then maybe we can find something we can all more-or-less gratefully live with.  And one of the things I shall be listening for this afternoon in the debate on the Manchester motion, is perhaps a little bit of clarity as to whether it means a recommendation to the House of Bishops to bring back the archbishops’ amendment in its pristine form;  or whether that phrase [in the Manchester amendment] ‘in the manner of’ the archbishops’ amendment gives us some scope to think again about whether there are ways of getting to that point by another route.  So that’s what I’ll be listening for. 

But not to detain you further, I hope that the two principles that we have, I think, enunciated as basic in this debate—clarity about a single structure of episcopal ministry, and clarity about respect and adequate provision for a minority—are for all members of Synod clear enough to feel grateful for.  Because I think it’s rather remarkable that in spite of the depth of division and the sharpness of theological disagreement that has been around in Synod, we have nonetheless come to a point where we can say, ‘This is the kind of church we could, with celebration, with affirmation, live in’.  I hope we won’t lose sight of that today.

©  Rowan Williams 2012



See below other recent statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury on this subject.


January 2012

In a joint forward with the Archbishop of York to the Synod paper Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure: Draft Code of Practice, the Archbishops said:

As bishops, we are very much aware that the Synod faces probably the most significant set of legislative decisions it has had to deal with for some twenty years.  For most in the Church of England, what is in view is a deeply positive change, a great gift to the church and its ministry in the twenty-first century; for others, who are no less valued and beloved brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, there are deep concerns and uncertainties about the future.  In these circumstances, we have to discern how best to take that responsibility for each other that is laid upon us by our communion in Christ.  Our prayer is that we can help one another forward, refusing to be imprisoned by a sense of burden and anxiety:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything with prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

+ Rowan Cantuar:   
+ Sentamu Ebor:



November 2011

As part of his evidence to the Joint Committee on Reform of the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed ‘fast-tracking’ women bishops to the House of Lords (p.16, Uncorrected Transcript of Oral Evidence).



November 2010

In November 2010 Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a wide-ranging interview to Andrew Peach at BBC West Midlands which included the following extract on the issue of Women in the Episcopate:

Andrew Peach: For some people in the West Midlands, the sort of reason that they would even contemplate that sort of change, and we've spoken to people who have made the change or are thinking about becoming Roman Catholics – one of the big issues facing the Church of England is about women bishops and whether the ordination journey which started some years ago will result in women being ordained bishops, which as I understand it is something you want.

Archbishop of Canterbury: It's something I'd like to see, yes, and it's something which I think a majority of people in the Church of England would be very happy with. It's as you say, part of a journey that we started some time ago, but I also share the concerns of a lot of people who have convictions about the rightness of women bishops, so we have got to be loyal to those people who want to be loyal to us, and make the best provision we can.

AP: To put this question simply, what's wrong with the system of male bishops within the Church that's got you this far, why does it need to change?

ABC: I think those of us who believe that there can be women bishops would say that the whole ordained ministry of the Church is part of the identity of the Church as baptised people, and men and women are baptised, they take on the responsibilities and dignities of being baptised, as the Bible says: having the likeness of Jesus Christ. And if men and women are both baptised then it seems reasonable to think that they can represent the congregation, and represent Christ in the congregation because they're baptised. That's the way the argument has moved, but for a long time I think social attitudes about women held us back, and also a sense that tradition weighed heavily, that it hadn't been done.



Click below on the tag "Women in the Episcopate" for other items on this subject.

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