Page last updated at 08:22 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Waiting for the women bishops

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

St Nicholas church, Sevenoaks. Rector Angus MacLeay (inset)
St Nicholas's rector Angus MacLeay (inset) insists: "We are loyal Anglicans"

The debate on whether to appoint women bishops returns to the Church of England's General Synod this week.

The parishes of the pretty Kent commuter town of Sevenoaks will send four delegates to the Synod, and Anglicans in the town hold a wide range of views on the women bishops issue.

"Certainly I am very well aware that at the end of the road we will have women bishops," says the Reverend Angus MacLeay, "But the real question is - what sort of a church will we have?"

Mr MacLeay is rector of the ancient parish church of St Nicholas, a General Synod member, and a trustee of Reform, the main evangelical group opposed to women bishops.

"People like myself, our position hasn't changed - it would be very sad if suddenly we're being redefined as no longer being loyal Anglicans when we've simply been faithful to the scriptures," he says.

Evangelicals - like the big enthusiastic congregations at St Nicholas - place little stress on ceremony, but are deeply sincere in seeking guidance from the Bible.

Those who oppose women's ordination point to I Timothy 2, 12: "I do not allow a woman to have authority over a man."

The Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England have a different emphasis. They profoundly revere the sacraments - the ceremonies of the Church - and the blessings imparted by them.

Many cannot accept that it is possible for a woman to be a priest or perform the sacraments. A man ordained by a woman bishop would not be a priest either, in their eyes.

The Reverend Anne Le Bas
We are not here to throw people out, to make them uncomfortable - but we are here."
The Reverend Anne Le Bas

Less than a mile north of St Nicholas is the exquisite 150-year-old Anglo-Catholic church of St John the Baptist.

Its vicar, Father Ivan Aquilina, fears that supporters of women bishops will not allow proper protection for clergy and parishes who feel as he does.

"It's like saying to me, 'Look, I'm happy for you to live in this house but you're not allowed water supply, electricity or heating - but you're really welcome to stay," he says.

At present St John's comes under a "flying bishop" opposed to women priests, appointed by the diocesan Bishop of Rochester to act for him.

But in future, the Bishop of Rochester may be a woman.

"How can my bishop receive jurisdiction from a lady who thinks she's a bishop, when she isn't?" asks Fr Aquilina.

'Move on'

Others feel that the present situation cannot continue for ever.

On the northern outskirts of Sevenoaks are the village and the lovely old church of Seal.

The priest-in-charge, the Reverend Anne Le Bas, says she can understand why the views of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical opponents were so important to them.

"I couldn't sit there and say to my neighbouring parish of St John's 'You don't matter; I don't want you in the Church'.

"I think that goes for many women priests.

"We are not here to throw people out, to make them uncomfortable - but we are here.

Jim Cheeseman
I think a lot of people who are in the Anglican Catholic 'thing' have thought about Rome and decided they are Anglicans
Jim Cheeseman

"We have this desire to move on together if we can.

"It's the 'If we can' which is the difficulty."

The proposal before the Synod envisages a code of practice allowing a woman diocesan bishop to appoint a "complementary bishop" to look after parishes unwilling to accept her care.

Anglo-Catholics who oppose women's ordination have said a code of practice will not do, and demand protection enshrined in law.

"It needs to be a structural solution where we have the right to live and not just be tolerated... we need to sit round a table and we need to have guarantees," says Fr Aquilina.

For Anne Le Bas, the proposed code is "probably as good as it's going to get" - but she believes it still discriminates against women.

Angus MacLeay at St Nicholas says: "Whenever you have something which is simply a code of practice it can be followed in varying degrees - in good faith - by people.

More TEA?

"But if you have got a statutory code of practice or statutory provision just everybody knows exactly where they stand."

He says Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (known as TEA) with the force of law should be considered - requiring a female bishop to transfer her powers to a complementary bishop for parishes who ask for this.

The female bishop in that situation would feel "understandably concerned and slighted" that their powers were being removed, Mr MacLeay admits.

If there were a female diocesan bishop and no provision for opponents, that would put them in a very difficult position, he warns.

But he adds: "We are loyal Anglicans who delight to serve Sevenoaks and the Gospel.

"I don't think anybody is seriously thinking of moving out of the Anglican Church."

Many Anglo-Catholic clergy did leave, to become Roman Catholics, when women priests were approved.

Father Ivan Aquilina
Opponents of women bishops "will need guarantees" says Fr Aquilina

Fr Aquilina says clergy are free to leave for Rome, but adds: "The fact that we are still here is because we believe that God has called us to be in this time and place."

However, he insists: "If the Church of England makes it impossible for us then I think no-one would blame us if we ask help... many of us believe in the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome and I think we need to ask for help and guidance."

Jim Cheeseman, a parishioner of St John's and a member of the General Synod, opposes plans for women bishops.

But he says: "I think a lot of people who are in the Anglican Catholic 'thing' have thought about Rome and decided they are Anglicans."

Nor does he think further compromise on women bishops is ruled out: "If it goes through as it is now - I should think that is about as probable as my becoming prime minister."

Defining issue

Everyone I spoke to in the churches of Sevenoaks insisted that the proper business of the Church was showing the love of Jesus, not arguing over politics.

On the west side of the town is St Luke's, a little brick-built gem of a church.

Its vicar, the Rev Mark Griffin, has always supported calls for women bishops.

But he says the "defining issue" for the Church is "about being a Church within the community.

"It is important to listen to the views of those who are fervently for [appointing women bishops] as much as for those who are against it.

"Things may move slowly - but there is a sort of discerning, and a wisdom in that."

Churches in Sevenoaks

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