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Dr Muriel Porter - in favour of Women Bishops

Posted on: July 24, 2001 3:14 PM
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Three years ago, General Synod asked for legislation for women bishops to be brought to this synod. It also asked for consideration to be given to some form of alternative episcopal oversight. That, in a nutshell, is the background to this presentation here. It is my role today, on behalf of the Standing Committee, to plead the cause of women bishops and introduce the legislation, while my colleague and friend, Dr Ann Young, will offer an alternative viewpoint.

Those of you who were in Adelaide in 1998 will recall that Ann and I were the presenting team then as well. When we were both on the General Synod platform last time, Ann and I scarcely knew each other, except as ideological sparring partners. We had been pitted against each other in earlier synods, on other issues. In 1998, we were polite, but wary colleagues.

Because of our role in 1998, we were invited to lead the working group set up by Standing Committee in response to the synod resolution. We began by meeting informally, and decided we would try to become friends as the process developed. Today, we stand before you as very good friends indeed. Neither of us has changed our position, but we are certainly not sparring partners any more. As good friends do, we care for each, respect each other, and try consistently to listen to each other.

In a modest sort of way, Ann and I have seen our growing friendship as a model for what could happen in the Australian Anglican Church on contentious issues such as women bishops. Are we prepared genuinely to listen to each other, or do we want to continue to be polite but wary, forever at arm's length - or worse, at each other's throats? That is the perhaps the key question we face in this synod - not women bishops or human sexuality or any other specific issue, but how we want to live together in this Church.

I said that I had not changed my theological position. That is not entirely true. Three years ago, I was implacably opposed to any hint of alternative episcopal oversight. As the result of listening to the views of Ann and others during the process of consultation as we prepared this legislation, I have shifted somewhat. I am more strongly convinced than ever that the time has come for women bishops in Australia, but I believe there is room for an inclusive and generous approach to those who do not think as I do. For that reason, I am happy to move the canon as it stands before you today, complete with the protocol for the pastoral care of those who will not welcome the ministry of a bishop who is a woman.

What we have tried to do in drafting this legislation is to achieve a principled compromise - a compromise whereby, without diminishing the office of bishop or the integrity of women who are bishops, those opposed to women bishops could at least feel they were respected and cared for.

This Church did not begin talking about women bishops in 1998. More than thirty years ago, in 1969, General Synod asked its newly-created Doctrine Commission to look at the ordination of women to the three-fold order of ministry. In 1977, the Commission brought a majority report to the 1973 General Synod, in which it declared it saw no theological barrier to women's ordination, having canvassed the issue from every angle, including Scripture, tradition, church history, and contemporary society. General Synod of 1977 agreed: it declared by resolution that there was no theological barrier to the admission of women as deacons, priests and bishops.

So nearly 25 years later, in 2001, the issue of women bishops is no novelty to this house. In the meantime, much has happened to confirm that earlier resolution. It is now 15 years since women were made deacons, and nearly nine years since women were admitted to the priesthood by General Synod. The latest statistics show there are 262 women priests in seventeen of our 23 dioceses, and 154 women deacons across all but two of our dioceses. More than 10 per cent of our clergy across Australia are women; in places like Brisbane and Melbourne the figure is 15 per cent. Our first women clergy are now among the senior clergy in a number of dioceses. They are archdeacons and canons and area deans; they are incumbents of large parishes and examining chaplains. They lecture in theological colleges; one college is led by a woman. Some of these senior women have spiritual gifts and pastoral experience that would more than grace the Bench of Bishops. Not to allow them to be considered for the order of bishops means, increasingly, that we have, de facto, a two-tier system of priesthood: male priests who can become bishops, and female priests who cannot. As long as women cannot become bishops, women priests belong to a second class order.

We are right, however, to be careful how we take this next step. We had to find a better way than the old way of winners and losers, and that is what we have worked to achieve with this legislation before you. The working group that Ann and I have led has worked hard to promote discussion and consultation around the Australian Church. Our preliminary report, completed in August 1999, was published on the web, as well as in hard copy. We sought submissions from synods, dioceses, bishops, interest groups, parishioners and clergy, both in the preparation of that report, and after its publication. . We are enormously grateful to those who offered their views. A range of possible options was examined and discussed.

The draft legislation before you is the fruit of that process. It is our earnest desire that it might offer a way forward in principled compromise, so that we might live together as members of the same Church, as friends and colleagues, even though we do not agree theologically on this issue, as on so many others.

The major concern some might have would be that women bishops could not be a focus of unity in a divided Church. If we mean a lowest common denominator unity, something everybody can agree with, then no, women bishops could not be a focus of unity. However, our present male-only episcopate does not offer that level of unity now. We already live with the reality of diminished communion. Many of our male bishops, because they have ordained women, are not invited to exercise episcopal or even sacramental ministry in some dioceses.

Increasingly, however, a male-only episcopate is becoming a powerful sign of our division, rather than of our unity. As more and more women priests are ordained, and as women clergy continue to take their place among the senior clergy, an episcopate closed to women represents our fracture, rather than our wholeness. If competent, godly women have to be by-passed in favour of more junior men, the episcopate will inevitably lose its power to represent and lead the whole People of God. A male-only episcopate will declare that we have a divided priesthood and indeed two classes of Christians - men who can lead the church, and women who cannot. The episcopate will cease to represent the fullness of Christ's ministry. In welcoming our Indigenous brother into the House of Bishops, we have taken an important step to ensure that that House is whole and authentic and truly representative, but now it must also admit women if it is to be complete. An incomplete House of Bishops cannot offer the Church true leadership.

We are by no means pioneers in this area. Eleven women bishops have been consecrated in New Zealand, Canada and the United States; they were all present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, where their presence created scarcely a ripple. Now, the Church of England, with growing numbers of women priests, has established a working party to look at the issue.

In a short while, you will have the opportunity to discuss some of the key aspects of the legislation that is before you. The protocol in the legislation will not please everyone. You may want to change some of the detail when we get to the committee stage in the legislative process. Indeed, for a number of reasons, you may decide you don't want any such provision; you just want women bishops. Again, you can argue that case when we come to the committee stage. But let me make one point clear: the protocol will not come into force in a diocese unless and until a woman bishop is appointed. That means the protocol will have limited application, and ironically, only in dioceses where there is a high level of support for women bishops.

Some who cannot accept women clergy will say that the protocol will not answer their need. The working group and the Standing Committee looked at more radical proposals in considerable detail, including the option of a system of non-geographic dioceses. The assessment of our best legal minds, however, was that such a move was beset by constitutional and legal barriers that would take many years to overcome, even if the national Church wanted to go down that path. Standing Committee was, however, able to agree unanimously that this legislation before you today should come to synod, because it was the best compromise possible. Considering the diversity of views represented there, that vote amounted to significant support for this process.

I have not presented the case for women bishops on theological grounds, because the theological debate about the ordination of women was concluded in this church once women were accepted as deacons and priests. Our prayerful study of the Scriptures, and our examination of church history and tradition, convinced us that this move was 'of God'. In the past nine years, that conviction has been resoundingly confirmed as we have seen and experienced the priestly ministry of women.

Increasingly, the Church can no longer offer a complete ministry without bishops who are women. Not in the third millennium, when the Holy Spirit is calling women into the fullness of their potential in every walk of life, in every dimension of their being. The episcopate needs the wholeness that women will bring. The Church needs the leadership of women. Let us now complete the work we began more than 30 years ago.

Disclaimer: This is the written text of the address and may have been changed upon delivery.