Page last updated at 08:15 GMT, Saturday, 14 February 2009

Synod struggles on women bishops

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

Kay Goldsworthy (L) and the Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft, at the consecration service for her ordination as Australia's first Anglican bishop
Opinion remains divided on the merits of women bishops

The Church of England is the broadest of churches. It has a reputation for carrying out an exhaustive search for compromise even if that means fudging difficult issues.

That's what made the Synod's substantial vote last summer to press ahead with the ordination of women bishops seem all the more decisive.

Traditionalists were left disappointed and angry when they were denied the legal right they had wanted to opt out of the control of women bishops.

The Synod clearly felt that ordaining women to the most senior posts was too important a principle to allow the pain of a minority of traditionalists to send it off course.

But when the Synod met this week for a passionate debate about the exact circumstances under which women were to be made bishops, determination seemed to have given way once again to an anxious search for the middle ground - and pessimism about the likelihood of finding it.

'Everything is reviewable'

A committee chaired by the Bishop of Manchester Nigel McCulloch presented draft laws for discussion, but he suggested that there was still scope for significant back-tracking.

Bishop McCulloch said it was not too late for Anglicans to put forward substantial amendments and said "it is open season once again, and everything is reviewable". He predicted that there would be searching and unwelcome dilemmas in the coming months.

Central to those dilemmas is that one side in the debate - mostly Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals - does not want women bishops at all.

The other, led by liberals and the growing ranks of women clergy - is determined that they should not be reduced to "second class" bishops by having their status or authority compromised.

The draft laws discussed by the Synod this week would allow parishes unwilling to accept a woman being in charge of them to ask to be looked after by a male "alternative" bishop. But if those parishes were in a diocese headed by a woman bishop, any male alternative could operate only at her discretion.

Typically of Anglican compromises it left neither side happy. The Bishop of Norwich spoke for many when he said the proposals would undermine what it was to be a bishop, without satisfying traditionalists who might abandon the Church of England, leaving it "pressed into deeper schism".

Own motion success

The draft laws were approved, with about the two-thirds majority which will be needed for a final vote clearing the way for women to become bishops - probably around 2014.

Church of England General Synod in Church House in London
The Synod has been meeting in London all week
But the greatest unanimity seemed to be achieved by ordinary Synod members who had managed to get their own motions onto the Synod agenda.

They included a ban on Anglican clergy or any staff speaking for the Church from membership of the British National Party, and other organisations with similar policies. Some worried that the proposal would infringe the rights of clergy to freedom of conscience, but the proposal got a big majority.

Another motion from a lay member of the Synod resulted in a chorus of complaint to the government and water watchdog Ofwat over the decision by some water companies to charge churches for draining water as if they were businesses.

Many churches have big "foot-prints" and among a catalogue of huge water bill increases, one Yorkshire parish registered a rise from 70 a year to 910, and another from 520 to 3500.

There was also success for a traditionalist lay member, Paul Eddy, whose motion urged the Church, in effect, to make explicit its aim of converting people of other religions to Christianity. Mr Eddy is among those conservative Anglicans resisting what they regard as a liberal trend in the leadership of the Church.

It is a battle that in the past has focussed largely on disputes about what the Bible teaches about homosexuality.

The duty to evangelise non-Christians is universally accepted in the Church, and is as old as Christianity itself.

The big majority Mr Eddy achieved for his motion showed he had chosen favourable territory to open this new front against liberalism.

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