Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Women in the Episcopate - General Synod Debate July 2006

Monday 10th July 2006

The Archbishop gave the following opening and closing speeches when moving item 14 at the July session of the Church of England's General Synod - on Women in the Episcopate.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

It's usually the apparently simple questions that are hardest to answer. My faint recollections of A-level history include echoes of the dispute in the 1860s over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, whether they should belong to Denmark or to the German Confederation. A 'yes or no' question, you'd think, but Lord Palmerston observed in 1864 that only three people had ever really understood the issues involved; of whom one was dead, the second was mad and the third had forgotten.

'Women bishops or not?' sounds like a simple 'yes or no' question to the world around as well as to many of us but is shows every sign of turning into a Schleswig-Holstein case, as discussion spirals as to what might be necessary and the technicalities proliferate. Acronyms are breeding fast - always a bad sign; apparently simply phrases - 'single clause' - turn out to be many-layered and elusive in their implications. How soon before we reach the situation Palmerston described, you may ask? But the question is not going to go away, no matter how complex the challenge of finding our way forward. What Saturday's debate has established is that a majority of this Synod at this time, bishops, clergy and laity, agrees that it is theologically congruent with our Anglican criteria for theological argument that women should be admitted to the Episcopate.

Now the theological discussion is by no means over. Discussion about theology and order and the Church and also about the theological significance of gender - gender difference itself. But this vote undoubtedly moves us further towards the plain question of how and when this is to be realised.

And here the majority fragments into potentially competing minorities on the issues of practical detail. How support in principle can be translated into the right kind of legislation is a question that has severely taxed the House of Bishops already, as you will be aware, and it would be unrealistic to suppose that the process of discernment is likely to be any easier for all of us as a Synod. The House of Bishops has seen the basic questions for each side as something like these terms: for the theologically convinced majority, the issue is how much they still want to see particular styles of catholic and evangelical theology, witness and mission, as a routine and recognisable part of Anglican life. And for the theologically unconvinced monitory the issue is about how Anglican such conscientious theological objectors want to be, accepting the unavoidable anomalies and possible contradictions of a Church that makes decisions in the way we do.

And these questions can't easily be answered in the abstract. Only as specific proposals emerge can we best assess whether provision for minorities has become something damaging to our general theological integrity and credibility. On the other hand, whether such provision leaves minorities worse off, tolerated on sufferance for the shortest possible time.

Hence the ambitious remit suggested for the legislative drafting group in this motion. We'd all hoped that the work of the Guildford Groups and the follow up work of the Bishops of Guildford and Gloucester would offer the materials for an early resolution of these matters. That they have not yet produced such a result is not the fault of those who have worked so hard on these documents under what may well have been unrealistic constraints of time. Along with the enormously substantial theological mapping exercise of the Rochester report, they will continue to offer foundations on which something can be built.

So the task now is to create a process that will continue to facilitate real engagement between contending voices, rather than a bare exchange of claims. The motion before you from the House of Bishops attempts to achieve this by envisaging a drafting body with a wide remit, able to consult extensively and to encourage more theological thinking as well as narrower drafting issues, and for the first time this will provide a place where representatives of all three houses can collaborate on the production of specific texts.

The House of Bishops and the Synod will be better placed to make some of the inevitable hard choices about the nature of the provision planned and the degree to which it should be embodied in legislation when they have before them the report of a drafting group, which has worked through the options in detail. And they will work best, of course, if they know they are surrounded by continued reflection, prayer and discussion throughout the Church.

Behind the particular difficulties lie several very searching questions about what kind of Church we are. Indeed, what we believe about the Church of God itself, not only about the Church of England. The 1998 Lambeth Conference resolved to affirm that those who dissent from and assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans. If we truly believe that, we have to find a way of expressing it practically and of making sense of it theologically. To claim to be a catholic Church and yet to allow for dissent and for divergence on a basic matter of order is not an easy or obvious position. Yet it is one which has to some degree proved itself in practice and that many of us will want to see upheld in some way.

But we shall resolve this only as people from across the spectrum work directly with each other, trying their best to calculate what are acceptable sacrifices or anomalies, what are for them are betrayals of principal.

The most hopeful signs over the past year or so have been that significant convergences about how minority provision might work in practice have appeared, even when there is no agreement over the detail of this or that scheme. That encourages me to believe that a remarkable number of people actually want much the same thing in this respect; that the issues of jurisdiction and authority, the question of how fully legally entrenched such provision should be; these are undeniably 'unfinished business'.

Before I conclude I must flag up one more thing, and it has relevance to some of the amendments we shall shortly come to. We are some way short of having a set of propositions that will be likely to command a two-thirds majority in each of our Houses at the point of final approval. It's going to be tempting to try and short-circuit the process by amendments that could be presented as victory for this or that group within the Church or the Synod. But if the effect of such amendments is to tie the hands of the drafting group too tightly, they will only intensify levels of unproductive conflict. It would be good - and I'm sure you will agree and are praying for this - if people did not go away from this Synod feeling that they had taken part in a 'zero sum' transaction. Instead, I hope we can have the right degree of trust in God and each other to believe that this proposed next stage will allow the right mixture of responsible action and progress and of proper care for each other and for the revealed truth we serve together.

I spoke to Synod last year of the things we need to be patient about and the things we need to be impatient about. The problem is that in this matter they seem inextricably tangled. But I pray that what is before you may offer a way of walking steadily forward without too much anxiety and with a sensible Biblical awareness of each other's pace and capacity within the life of the Body of Christ.

I commend the motion for debate

[A debate followed. The Archbishop then gave the closing speech].

Thank you very much, Madam Chair. May I just add my voice to others of congratulations to you for the chairing of our debate this morning?

I shan't, I hope, detain you too long. I want to pick up four or five points from the very, very large range of arguments touched upon this morning and leave you with a few words to reflect on. First of all, let me borrow from the Bishop of Gloucester four governing principals that we ought to be working with: clarity, charity, affirmation and action.

Bishop Michael spoke about the need for clarity. And here, of course, we're often caught. We don't want to define too soon and yet we know that it's destructive to go on waffling too long. Clarity has to come - and I'll say a word about that in a moment in relation particularly to the most difficult single issue we were discussing this morning. But of course clarity does begin and end, as Bishop John reminded us just now, with clear vision of God and of what God lays upon us and of each other, which is why it's connected with charity. Seldom as that appears in practice, seeing people and things truly and accurately, is inseparable from love.

Affirmation has been mentioned and I'm glad that we have had an opportunity this morning to hear profound and serious affirmation of all kinds of different ministries. We've heard, necessarily and rightly, affirmation of the gifts women have brought, are bringing, and will bring, to ministry at every level and in every part of our Church and it would be a great mistake to go away from this debate without having in some sense recorded, expressed, articulated, gratitude to God wherever we start from, for what God has given us in those ministries.

We also heard, as we heard right at the beginning of the debate from Bishop Martin, about the affirmation of the sacrificial pastoral work done by so many in our Church who would find themselves I think in a very difficult position after some of this morning's debate. Affirmation is not fundamentally a political matter; it's a matter of that magnanimity - as the Archbishop of York reminded us of the other day.

But finally, action. We have, I think, come to a point where we need to take the process forward as I said earlier on to walk at a steady pace in the light of the discussion and the reflection that we've had so far. I think- and the debate this morning has encouraged me to think- that the motion before you gives a viable vehicle for that action to move forward so I'm grateful to Bishop Michael for those four principles and I think he has given us a very helpful framework for looking at where we now are.

Likewise, I'm grateful to Viv Faull for speaking about frameworks not straightjackets. We have rightly resisted the temptation both to accelerate a Synodical timetable in a way which won't I think in the long run help us and to close down options.

Frameworks are not necessarily woolly or soft things; indeed if you don't have tough and resilient frameworks, houses and other things fall down. So do processes, I think, and we have got a framework that is dependable here.

But, in a sense, the most interesting set of words and ideas that's come out of this morning's discussion for me words that have come from Alan Hargrave among others that were different ways picked up by Jane Sinclair and John Gladwin and Christopher Hill. It's been language about loyalty, about mutual obligation, which I think was John Gladwin's term as a way of reading lawfulness. Recognition, and of course this is the area in which the controverted matter of Canon A4 so clearly falls. I think we all know in very broad terms what loyalty, allegiance, mutual obligations and mutual recognition are about, spiritually and imaginatively. And we are faced with an immense practical challenge as to how to stress that in anything like legal terms.

That, I think, is inevitable at this stage in the debate. I think there is a great deal of work still to do on what that recognition, allegiance, mutual obligation means, including in the context of understanding Canon A4 more fully. Squaring circles, possibly, but I like to think it needn't be as inevitably frustrating as that suggests, if we begin from a sense of recognising in one another not simply a status but a gift - and the discussion has, of course, amply recognised and indeed done justice to the mutual recognition of gift - if we keep that in prime position, we may be able to handle some of those difficulties a little bit better.

We've been reminded of what sort of consultation will help us here and what won't. We've been reminded by Anne Williams among others, of the need for parishes to be fully involved in consultation process; we've been reminded of the needs and imperatives coming from young people, young believers, of the imperative of involving women in this stage of our deliberations and, I think, to use a form of words which I've sometimes used before - and this does seem to me quite significant in our thinking about the Church - that decisions take a little longer but are more genuinely owned at the end of the process, the time is not wasted. I trust that has been part of what we have been discussing this morning; I trust that it'll be what we will proceed to vote for in a few minutes' time.

Finally, three pairs of words that have come up to express the tension that most of us find ourselves in the middle of one way or another; restraint and decision, grace and law, patience and hope.

Christians are used to living in the overlap of words and worlds. I think those three pairs express something of what the overlap is about at the moment. It's a very uncomfortable place to be and it can only be sustained if we do so with an obstinate and underlying spirit of gratitude about why we're here. We're here because God has given us certain gifts and we're trying to work out what to do with them and how to respond to them.

And last, I'd like to think that mutual loyalty, mutual recognition, allegiance and all those other things - the allegiance, as Sue Slater reminded us early on, we're not terribly good at expressing or embodying such a lot of the time - all of those things are, I would say, the seed-bed of a genuinely fruitful, genuinely evangelical, genuinely evangelistic ministry. Our pledged character in relation to one another is one of the most fundamental Biblical insights that we can think about. Unless that is again central in our thinking and our praying, our ministry whether we're men or women, catholics, protestants or whatever, our ministry will be frustrated and lessened.

So I would like to end with that plea that we see this process of exploring discovery and testing our mutual loyalty and our sense of obligation and to see that as the seed bed for the creative ministry of the future.

So I urge you to support this motion.

Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2006

Back · Back to top