General Synod: The Challenge of Voting in Women Bishops

by April Alexander, who served on General Synod (2000-2016) and was a Church Commissioner (2008-2018), an elected member of the Crown Nominations Commission (2013-2017) and Vice Chair of Church of England Pensions Board (2002-2008)

Like Jenny Humphreys I, too, had refrained from standing for election to General Synod this year.  It is absolutely right that there should be a welcome for new and younger members (this is not difficult in my case) and I had been a member for longer than is good for Synod or for the Church.

The reason I stayed so long was that I hung on for the Measure for Women Bishops to be passed (November 2014) and to go through the Houses of Parliament (early 2015). By that time, I was serving on the Crown Nominations Commission with the express purpose of participating in the nomination of the first women as Diocesan Bishops. To serve out my term of five years I had to be a continuing member of General Synod.

Many people may not realise that the legislation allowing women as bishops has, within it, a massive caveat. Individuals and parishes are allowed to refuse to recognise the Episcopal Orders of women as they are allowed to refuse the recognise the Orders of ordained women. They may effectively opt out of the Diocesan structure and obedience and may seek the Ecclesiastical oversight of Bishops who hold similarly discriminatory views.

The Church has been found to discriminate against UKME candidates for ordination and for Consecration as well as against the disabled (given their low  numbers amongst the ranks of priests and bishops), but in no case other than women is there provision in legislation to allow for this discrimination. The Church also discriminates against candidates in Civil Partnerships and does not allow its priests to enter into a same sex marriage, but none of these provisions are written into legislation. Synod is likely to be offered the opportunity to change this situation in the coming five years.

In 2015, Parliament was so incensed about a whole bench of exclusively male bishops in their midst that they,  rather than Synod, legislated for the speedy introduction of women to the House of Lords by allowing them to leap frog over longer serving male bishops as vacancies occurred.  The embarrassment for the Church now is that there have not been enough new women appointed to fill those vacancies and, meanwhile, men continue to be appointed by default. This leap frogging provision only lasts for ten years (until 2025) and the outlook for women in the House of Lords and for those women and men who are anxious that they should be there, looks bleak.

Since 2015, fifteen Diocesan Bishops have been appointed but only six were female, despite the fact that there was and remains a surplus of talent among the pioneering group as one might expect.  There are fewer female than male candidates partly because there are fewer females in senior positions from which to draw them from, but there are still far more than enough outstanding women than the figures would suggest.

As mentioned above Diocesan Bishops are nominated by the Crown Nominations Commission and I was a member of it from 2013 – 2018.  It is a silent and very secretive body. A major factor mitigating against female appointments is the make-up of that body which includes those who, quite legally, hold this discriminatory view about women. Commonly they will number between four and six of the fourteen members.  The successful nominee needs to get a vote of support from two thirds of those fourteen members (ie 10 out of 14); it follows that women candidates are at a disadvantage from the very start and usually need to get 100% of the votes of those who are equally disposed to male and female candidates and sometimes even this is not enough. There are women who put themselves through this gruelling process when it is clear to the Commission and sometimes to themselves, that they have no chance at all of achieving the necessary ten votes.

As a result of all this, it is vital that all electors for General Synod know the answers to three questions which should be put to each candidate

  1. “Are you unequivocally supportive of women as bishops and priests?”
  2. “Are you unequivocally supportive of people in civil partnerships as bishops or priests?”
  3. “If you are successful in this election, would you unfailingly vote in favour of these two groups whenever there is an opportunity to do so during your time on Synod?”

Please note that those who are not in favour of those propositions are advised by their groups and associations NOT to make this clear and they are told how to duck the questions.

If you look up this link and open the docs referred to at the bottom of it, you will see how Conservative Evangelical candidates are advised to duck the question when asked about these things and how to obfuscate.

They offer evasive model answers for hustings.

Their website “explains how orthodox Anglican Evangelicals can work together to elect a General Synod that safeguards the doctrine and teaching of the Church of England.”

That “doctrine and teaching” is vehemently opposed to both women and gay people as priests and bishops.

It is because of this that every elector needs to know what is meant by their obfuscatory and anodyne declarations. To this end, there is nothing to stop an elector contacting the candidates in her/his Diocese to ask the three questions above.

Candidates, who are in possession of the email addresses of all electors, could email them all to tell them who are the candidates who reply positively to such questions.

Finally, Inclusive Church has a list of those, Diocese by Diocese, who assent to their Statement which includes the following

 “We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality.”

Here is the list of those candidates in each Diocese who assent to the above:

Please note:

  1.  People on that list may well help you with asking the questions and with the canvassing exercise set out above

2.  You are certainly encouraged to vote for these candidates and you may find that there are enough of them in your Diocese to make up your voting list. Remember that the STV system of voting does not require that you use up all your votes and you are well advised not to vote for anyone about whom you are uncertain on these matters.

Thank you and good luck!

This entry was posted in April Alexander, Establishment, General Synod, Guest Contributors, Sexism. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to General Synod: The Challenge of Voting in Women Bishops

  1. Rachel Noel says:

    Thank you April for this really helpful article, and for your part in helping the legislation have reached this far.

    I would question the statement that it is only the discrimination of women that is legislated for in our institution. Discrimination with regards to disability is enshrined in Canon law. Canon C4:3 states “3. No person shall be admitted into holy orders who is suffering, or who has suffered, from any physical or mental infirmity which in the opinion of the bishop will prevent him from ministering the word and sacraments or from performing the other duties of the minister’s office.” Various people have questioned my ordination, and use this canon as the reason underpinning their views, because during my curacy I was diagnosed with ADHD, Autism and Bipolar.

    • I did not know that I am very sorry to have been so misleading. What is worse, though, is that people can say such a thing and quote in this way. I am not sure which Diocese you are in and whether you might know my friend Tim Goode; he is on general Synod and the Archbishops’ Council and he represents disabled people particularly. He would be the best person I know who could raise this matter in places where someone might be able to do something about it. Do come back to me if I can make an introduction. Renewed apologies, April

      • Rachel Noel says:

        Thank you April, yes, I know Tim, and he is doing a great job in raising awareness, and I work with Fiona MacMillan, who pioneers the Inclusive Church / St Martin in the Fields annual Disability Conference.

      • The Canon C4:3 predates the ordination of women and predates both the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and the 2010 Equalities Act. As a result both the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and the 2010 Equalities Act both supersede the Canon C4:3. Canon C4:3 is therefore null and void. There is a case for striking it from the record as a symbolic gesture, and we are looking into that as an option. But the reality is that Canon C4:3 cannot and therefore should not be invoked in any shape or form at all because the Church has to adhere by law to both the 1995 Disability Discrimation Act and the Equalities Act 2010. If Canon C4:3 has been used as a reason for not ordaining someone, then the Church is contravening the Equalities Act 2010, are breaking the law and are opening the Church to serious litigation.

  2. Perhaps, if we believe that gender does not define limits to the ability to do a good job as a bishop, then – if the Church is serious about equality – in each diocese and each appointment, men and women should be rotated. Last bishop was a man? Then next bishop will be a woman.

    In saying this, I am not trying to gloss over the consideration that a candidate may identify as non-binary, but I think if we are honest then we recognise that statistically that would be infrequent, and would not prevent the ‘next-but-one’ being female, if the last one was male.

    The system would allow for equal opportunity for men and women to exercise their gifts, and be a gift, for the Church and the calling of that Church by God.

Any thoughts?