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

Speeches to General Synod on Women Bishops

Thursday 9th February 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, made two contributions to the Synod debate on the House of Bishops' findings on women bishops. He sets out the need for continued "careful, thoughtful mindful progression" towards a resolution.

"This world will one day pass away and the ecclesiastical structures on which we expend so much time and energy, important though they are, will pass away with it. In the light of this fact, we need to give the highest priority to deepening the quality of our love for the other members of the Body of Christ, perhaps especially those with whom we most strongly disagree on issues such as the ordination of women to the Episcopate. All else may pass away, but love we have shown to our sisters and brothers will remain and will bear fruit in eternity."

In case you don't recognise them, those are words from the final paragraph of the Rochester Report and they are, it seems to me, an ideal point for beginning our consideration this morning.

I want to start by setting in context the motion that you have from the House of Bishops. Its starting point was a request from the Synod in July 2000 for the House to initiate theological study in relation to the admission of women to the Episcopate, and the result was the publication in November 2004 of the Rochester Report which was the subject of a Synod debate last February and, as we heard on Monday, has already stimulated ecumenical responses and will no doubt continue to do so.

There may be some who think that the completion of the Rochester report marks the end of the theological phase of our work. There are others, I think, who might believe that this chapter of theological reflection came to and end last July in Synod, since it was then that Synod voted by overwhelming majorities in each house to set in train the process for removing legal obstacles to the ordination of women to the Episcopate. But the truth is that neither event marked the end of our theological exploration. As was said last July and has been said during this Synod's Group of Sessions, the theological exploration continues; stimulated and enlarged and enriched by the actual process of discovering precisely what it is that we want to do and precisely how we want to do it. Theology is not something that can be 'got out of the way' before we turn to the 'real' business of politics and horse-trading. Theology is the business; and the 'how' of proceeding is as much a theological question as the 'whether' or the 'when'.

Synod, last July, decided to initiate a process. Some of those who were then unable to support the motion were, of course, opposed in principle to the admission of women to the Episcopate. Others who opposed it believed that it was not the right moment to proceed. By contrast, all those who voted in favour of the motion were certainly signalling that they were open to the possibility of women bishops. But I think it was understood at that point that there was more work to be done before Synod could reach a considered judgement about the whether, the when and the how. And, as I've said, that work continues to be a theological labour. It's precisely because the journey is unavoidably long and uncertain that we need to move with sure steps at each stage. There are various cul-de-sacs down which it is very tempting to rush but, in the middle term that would be very frustrating for all of us.

And it's to ensure such careful, thoughtful mindful progression that the House and the whole Synod are so much in the debt of the Bishop of Guildford and his Group for the care and thoroughness of the assessment laid before us in GS 1605 which is already been so richly and so rightly praised in earlier discussions. This group attempted to respond to the majority view in the last Synod that proper attention needed to be given to issues such as canonical obedience and recognition of orders, which would inevitably arise for those who conscientiously dissented from the admission of women to the Episcopate.

And, as you've heard this week, the Guildford Group, unanimously, and the House of Bishops by a majority, believe that simply providing for dissent by means of a code of practice would leave too much to discretion create too great a variety of practice and fail to preserve that highest possible degree of Communion in the Church of England of which the motion speaks. The Guildford group and the majority opinion on the House of Bishops was that these issues about jurisdiction and obedience were best and most fruitfully addressed through primary legislation.

This is not a universal view, clearly, in Synod but I hope the case for it can be solidly argued this morning. It would be good to think that in a healthy Church there was sufficient mutual trust to make legislation of this sort unnecessary. But we do have to deal with the reality of perceptions, with the reality of the way in which there is not always and automatically a trust that can be taken for granted to the extent that one can simply ignore safeguards, and accept what was said about the unpleasantness of the word 'safeguards' earlier this week, but it's a word which we seem doomed to be using.

It can well be argued for historical and ecclesiological reasons that these issues about jurisdiction and obedience and so forth, should be left well alone. And those who take that view and would favour what is by shorthand called a 'single clause' approach, have a very solid case to make, but I think will need to face the possible implications of what such a route might involve; implications that are sketched in the Guilford report. It would mean waiting until the day came, if it did ever come, when there would a two thirds majority in each House of Synod for a measure with no legislative provision for conscientious dissent, and that would in turn involve Synod, by substantial majorities, settling for the view that the Church of England could get along perfectly well with those who might have been prepared to stay had the majority been prepared, in love, to go the extra mile for them. More than one Church has a history of a great disruption, at some point we were reminded of the ambivalent nature of the date 1662 for some of our Christian brethren the other day. Great disruptions are tempting, seductive, dramatic, and not actually very useful for the Kingdom of God. And sooner or later they have to be undisrupted. I hope that we can think of those possible risks and losses and ask what it is, in love, which might be done to carry us forward together, rather than apart. Even if that togetherness is more fractured and more untidy than many might like.

But it's for reasons such as those that the majority in the House including the Archbishop of York and myself believe, as the motion says, that an approach along the lines of transferred Episcopal arrangements merits further serious exploration. So why not ask Synod straight away to prepare legislation to authorise the preparation of legislation on that basis? The reason is simple enough, its barely three weeks since the report was published and discussions of the draft report within the House of Bishops revealed clearly that there were concerns and uncertainties, loose, ends about aspects of the proposal both theological and practical which would need a bit more time. Hence the proposal in the motion for a further statement of the theological, ecumenical and canonical implications of the proposals before Synod establishes a mandate for a drafting group.

For such further work, the Bishops of Guilford and Gloucester have agreed to undertake some labour of revision and exploration in connection with the statement, consulting with the House's theological group and the standing committee. This is not another major exercise requiring a new group, I should say that the Guilford Group has done four-fifths of the necessary work; we need to allow the final bit of work to be done, and not spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar. We believe that such final exploration can be completed in time for the July Group of Sessions, and it will then be for Synod to decide whether it is ready to issue a mandate for a legislative drafting group.

While there are some for whom this seems appallingly slow, there are others for whom it appears to be a Gaderene rush, which suggests it may be about right of course. But I draw attention to the words of paragraph 14 of the GS 1605a, 'Decisions about the Episcopate affect our fundamental identity as part of the Church, and need to be taken in the context of sustained and prayerful reflection'. The House of Bishops is asking Synod to give space for a little more sustained and prayerful reflection, in order to put some more flesh on the proposals that are before you, Proposals which represent, indeed, some fresh departures, some new and unfamiliar territory.

But in conclusion I'd want to make two points in relation to that and to a wider concern. We are, as was said earlier this week, in uncharted territory. There is no option for not changing. A tidy vote for the ordination of women to the Episcopate by something like a single clause measure is tempting but it entails the possibility of real disruption in the life of our church and, of course, forces upon us some unwelcome consideration about ecumenical consequences. We're going to isolate ourselves from somebody in this process and the challenge is how we can minimise the damage and the risks of mutual isolation.

'We are all in schism', as somebody said many years ago; it's not a question of legislating for schism or providing for schism or whatever; we're there already. The question is how we handle it prayerfully, mindfully and decently and, I would add, hopefully. And the second of my concluding points all of this might mean that we're recognising as a synod that there are circumstances where integrity needn't mean absolute division. And we're in the process of managing diversity and conflict we actually discover something about our unity that we didn't know before. That seems to me what is hopeful in these proposals and in the time that lies ahead of us: a time for discovering something about ourselves as a church and about each other that we didn't know before and thereby perhaps beginning to model something for the Church Catholic and the world at large. Integrity need not mean absolute division; it can mean a process of admittedly painful, often untidy, but finally deeply evangelical self-discovery, the discovery of what God purposes for us.

So Mr Chairman I beg to move the motion.


Closing remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury, summing up the debate:

Thank you Mr Chairman.

Clearly in eight-ish minutes it's not going to be easy to cover all the points made, but let me pick up some themes that have recurred. A number of speakers have addressed the question of how we make decisions. The Bishop of Winchester raised this; Ann Williams made some extremely helpful points about conversation and I think we do also have to bear in mind what Archdeacon Norman Russell said; that there are those who would actually be in favour of the substantive goal of ordaining women to the Episcopate but who would find it very hard to vote in favour of certain kinds of legislation because they believed that those were not theologically, spiritually, or canonically adequate. We have to bear that in mind, I think, as we consider.

Difficulties have been mentioned about the actual working of TEA (Transferred Episcopal Arrangements). Christine Allsopp, Christian Hardman and others have noted the ways in which this is seen as in some ways undermining something of what we take for granted about the Episcopate, as well as undermining the idea that women are absolutely, unequivocally fully Bishops in the Church of God. These are serious considerations, but on the practical level, so eloquently set out by Chancellor Coningsby, we have the challenge of developing a real common culture. Pete Broadbent noted that this could, in fact, be done. Perhaps it oughtn't to be possible to do it, but mysteriously, it seems to be. Like the water beetle who, you may remember

'... flabbergasts the human race
By gliding on the water's face
With ease celerity and grace.
But if he ever stopped to think
Of how he did it, he would sink.'

(The Water Beetle, Hilaire Belloc)

Well, we have a little bit of water-beetling to do, I suspect, in the years ahead; I hope that we can do it with some confidence, given the stories of how we hear it just might be done. Common culture grows out of finding different ways of engaging than simply the adversarial model and that's been put before us, I think, very clearly. Common conversation, common culture, the whole notion that we have looked at already in this Synod of finding other ways than debate to do our business.

Is it a problem that women will not be recognised, that women will not be recognised unequivocally, under a TEA - shaped provision? I think the honest answer is 'Yes, it is a problem'. And also it's a problem that is, if you like, intrinsic to where a divided Christendom already is. It may look attractive superficially to say 'We are content to be a smaller group in which women are unequivocally and universally recognised', but that, as I hinted earlier, does mean that we have put ourselves further apart from some other Christians - including some who are historically part of our fellowship. I was very moved by what Dr Chik Kaw Tan said about losing something of ourselves in this process if we don't try to consider how we might hold together in this apparently implausible way, moved also by what Elnora Mann had to say about the agonies of conscience that are part of all of our agenda as those claiming to belong to one body in Christ. Though of course it would have to be said also that consciences in agony and pain are shared across the board from people with all sorts of positions, and I would guess that there are some who would feel that their souls were undermined and threatened by a failure to move forward in this way, just as much as we were told that part of the soul is killed by the sense that the church is moving. It's the Body of Christ again, to which, appropriately, we keep coming back.

Kate Tupling, almost in passing, said something that I think, is very significant indeed for everyone in these discussions; there's always a habit of talking about others as if they weren't really there. Some of us talk about women as if they weren't there, some of us talk about the disabled as if they weren't there, some of us talk about dissidents or traditionalists as if they weren't there and so on. And the challenge of the common culture, the conversation model is precisely that we try to find ways of talking which are absolutely fully conscious of the 'there-ness' of others that it's easier to forget. Because I don't think, with respect to Robert Key, I don't think we're just looking for the comfort zone here; I don't think we'd have spent quite so much time this morning on all this if we were just looking for easy ways forward. There isn't one, and whatever one's view on TEA, I don't think anyone really claimed that it was the easy option. The easy option is always some sort of denial and at least this debate has shown that we're not into that and I'm devoutly grateful for the honesty and openness that has been shown in that respect.

Many other remarks I wish I could comment on but there's one, no, two last things I'll touch on. One is the important point I mentioned very briefly earlier: do we want to celebrate the ministry of women? I hope that whatever has been said this morning in any area on either side of the debate will not weaken that sense. I've been very moved by the way in which, in those whole debate, those who are in principle opposed to women's ordination as priests or as bishops have nonetheless paid generous tribute to the contribution made to the actual concrete pastoral work, the evangelistic work, offered by ordained women and I think that is something which has changed perhaps over the last ten or fifteen years is that the sense that it is possible to be generous in that way; that those who might describe themselves as traditionalists have been generous in acknowledging that this is part of the life we share in some way and that therefore God is to be thanked for it.

So it would be a tragedy if this debate ended on any kind of negative note about that. We are recognising that God has given us gifts through the ministry, the ordained ministry, of women in the church; gifts we didn't expect, gifts we weren't looking for, gifts that we sometimes don't know what to do with; gifts, nonetheless.
It doesn't answer the question; it doesn't solve the problem but it's there as part of our common life.

And then another brief comment, which I think we do need to hold before us carefully and thoughtfully. People have talked at times about differences of opinion and how the Church can live with differences of opinion. I think that the problem is for those who are not content with the idea that we should go forward along the line of ordaining women as bishops, the problem is not one of opinion, it's rather of obedience. It's one of obedience to scripture, or obedience to the consensus of the Church Catholic. And, while that's not a view I wholly share, I think we ought to recognise that that's where it comes from, that those who hold that are not just thinking 'this is a matter of opinion' and therefore it is rightly and understandably a lot harder to deal with dissent if you're talking what fundamentally comes down to a question of whether you obey God or human authority. That's why it's serious, that's why it's difficult. More than opinion.

So, thank you very much indeed for the tone and the content of this morning's debate. We are far from resolution on this but I do believe that, by the grace of God, by a lot of mutual listening and by a lot of hard work from the Guildford group, we have come to a place where we have at the very least, the next step to take which leaves sufficient flexibility to discover other ways; which leaves us time and scope to think theologically about the implications of what we're doing and to look at those ecumenical issues that have been touched on which I hope and pray honours the deep passions on both sides, the deep sense of calling, and appropriateness and, yes, justice that is felt by some; the deep sense of the need to go on witnessing to the claims of obedience on the other.

I hope that, as I said earlier, that if we can do this together, we shall have found forms of catholicity and forms of unity that we had not dreamed of before, and that all of this may yet be part of the gift that we offer to the common life of the Catholic Church.

Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2006

Back · Back to top