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CHURCH OF ENGLAND: Women bishops considered; third province unlikely

Church of England to consider women bishops; third non-geographical province unlikely

by Matthew Davies

(ACNS)--Several reports in the British press over the past two weeks have suggested the possibility of a third non-geographical province being introduced to the structure of the Church of England in response to the possible ordination of women bishops in the province.

The Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, England, has chaired the working party on the Theology of Women in the Episcopate since it was created in July 2000, and the culmination of its work has resulted in a report being drafted for consideration. The House of Bishops of the Church of England met this week in the lead up to the annual February gathering of the General Synod in London, and one of the items on their agenda was the discussion of this draft report.

Head of Media Relations for the Church of England, Mr Steve Jenkins, said that the House of Bishops had been asked by the General Synod to produce a report on the theological issues, considering all possibilities, as a background document to any future debate. "At the end of the report there is a table that represents all possible pastoral arrangements," he said. "At one extreme there is the option of no episcopal oversight, and at the other extreme there is the possibility of a third non-geographical province." The likelihood of one of these extremes being adopted is improbable.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali last reported to General Synod in 2002 saying that, in considering the place of women in the Church, the working party has had to reflect on women in society generally. "Here we have tried to come to an understanding of women and men in creation which respects both their difference and their common creation in the image of God, as well as their common mission in God's World (Gen: 26-28)," he said. "Our views are likely to be rooted in whether we see the common mission of men and women as more fundamental or the distinction in role which comes from difference in gender."

The primary task of the working party has been to identify and examine the theological issues involved in the ordination of women to the episcopate. "It may be...that arising out of this, the working party will also be able to make practical recommendations," said Bishop Michael. "It is, of course, for General Synod to consider the findings of the working party and to make appropriate decisions in the light of such findings."

Christina Rees, a member of General Synod and Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) - an organisation which works for an inclusive Church and wants to see women taking their place alongside men at every level in the Church - met with some of the bishops of the Church of England after the House met. "The report of the working party will most likely be discussed at General Synod in November 2004 or February 2005," she said. "In the meantime, the draft needs to be amended and then returned to the House of Bishops for their meeting in July this year."

The working party, which includes people with vastly differing views, has taken four years to complete its work; a great deal longer than originally anticipated. "When people ask me - 'is the Church of England ready to move forward?' - my answer is unequivocally: absolutely!" she said. "When we look at the figures we find that at least 4 out of 5 laity and 3 out of 4 clergy are ready to accept women as bishops." She added that there are only a small number of bishops who would be averse to this. "The Church is more than ready!"

The first female priest in the Anglican Communion, the Revd Florence Lei Tim Oi, was ordained in Hong Kong in 1944. During the 1960s and 70s there was a movement in many countries across the world towards the ordination of women as priests. In 1974 there was an irregular ordination of 11 women in the United States, and the Episcopal Church in the United States authorised women's priestly ordination two years later.

On 11 November 1992, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to open the priesthood to women, five years after women were first ordained to the diaconate. This vote came after 70 years of formal discussion and debate in the Anglican Communion, which began in 1920 when the Lambeth Conference first considered the issue. Currently, one in five Church of England priests is female.

At present, only the Anglican/Episcopal Churches of the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Southern Africa have approved legislation for the ordination of women as bishops. However, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) ended centuries of tradition when they met in Edinburgh last year and made an historic decision by voting to accept women in the episcopate.

In March 2003, Church leaders in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds voted by a large majority to allow women to become bishops. This is just one of many diocesan synods that have put pressure on the Church of England to speed up the process.

The Revd Dr Sr Teresa, Editor of Distinctive News of Women in Ministry and member of the Church of England General Synod 1995-2000, said, "Having women, as well as men as bishops, would enrich the church, especially in its pastoral work for both lay and ordained women."


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