GS Misc 1039

[This is a copy of the pdf original on the Church of England website.]

Women in the Episcopate – Synodical Process

1. To make it possible for women to be consecrated as bishops the General Synod needs to approve a measure and an amending canon. All measures (the equivalent of Acts of Parliament) require scrutiny by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, and then approval by the House of Commons and House of Lords before receiving the Royal Assent. Canons are submitted to Her Majesty, via the Ministry of Justice, for the Royal Assent and Licence of the Crown.

2. It is, in principle, possible for both measures and canons to confer enabling powers under which subordinate instruments may be made. For example, the legislation defeated in November would have required the production of a code of practice, made by the House of Bishops and approved by the Synod. Similarly a canon could in principle provide for the House of Bishops to make regulations.

Decision making in Synod

3. Decisions of the Synod are normally taken by a simple majority vote of the whole Synod. But some decisions have to be taken by a division by Houses, in which case the business is carried only if it receives the support of majorities in each of the three Houses – Bishops, Clergy, and Laity. It is also open to 25 members of the Synod to trigger a division by Houses on any issue (other than on questions of procedure). Additionally, certain types of business require the approval of a special majority in each House or of the whole Synod.

4. The synodical legislative process is in some respects similar to that of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Upon introduction all draft measures receive first consideration in the Synod – the equivalent of the parliamentary second reading stage. They are then considered by a revision committee at the equivalent of committee stage. On return to the floor of the Synod they are considered at the revision stage – the equivalent of report stage. There is then an additional stage – final drafting – which primarily provides an opportunity for any minor drafting adjustments before the final approval vote.

5. Certain categories of legislation- including any measure to enable women to become bishops- are subject to the requirements of Articles 7 and 8 of the Synod’s Constitution. Legislation falling within Article 7 can only come to the Synod for final approval in a form approved by the House of Bishops. It is open to the House to make such amendments as it sees fit before the Synod finally decides whether to approve the legislation.

6. The effect of Article 8 is that legislation falling within it, or the substance of the proposals embodied in it, has to be sent out to the dioceses at some point between the revision stage and final approval and can only proceed to final approval if at least 23 of the 44 dioceses of the Church of England give their approval. Approval is deemed to have been given by a diocesan synod if the Houses of Clergy and Laity vote in favour of the legislation.

7. The highest hurdle for the approval of any measure to enable women to become bishops comes at the final approval stage, when a two-thirds majority is needed in each of the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity in the General Synod. It was this hurdle that the draft legislation on women bishops failed to pass on 20 November.

Differences between Parliament and the Synod

8. In comparing synodical and parliamentary legislative processes there are three significant differences to bear in mind:

Suspending Standing Orders?

9. It is, in theory, possible for the Synod to suspend its Standing Orders in relation to aspects of the procedure that would otherwise apply to legislation enabling women to be consecrated as bishops. But that would require the consent of three quarters of the members of the General Synod.

10. In addition, those requirements which are in the constitution could not be set aside by this means; primary legislation would be required. Relevant requirements imposed by the Constitution are for: the consent of the majority of the dioceses; the agreement of the House of Bishops to the text which is to be submitted for final approval; and two-thirds majorities in each House at final approval.

How long?

11. The House of Bishops has already said, in its statement of 11 December, that new legislation needs to be simpler. How long it will take to reach the final approval stage depends to some extent, however, on whether, before it is introduced to the Synod, a broader measure of agreement can be secured in pre-legislative discussions than was achieved last time on the overall shape of the proposals.

12. When the last process started there remained radically different views on the desirable shape of the legislation and these points continued to be argued right through the process. Thus the revision committee received 297 submissions and had to meet on 16 occasions.

13. Much turns, therefore on the intensive facilitated discussions planned for the early months of 2013. Thereafter, once legislation has received first consideration in the Synod a further three meetings of the whole Synod will be required.

14. The period needed between these meetings will turn in particular on how long the revision committee takes and how quickly the reference to the dioceses can be undertaken. Last time these took, respectively, a year (because of the large number of amendments to be considered by the revision committee) and 15 months (to give the diocesan synods the option to seek the views of deanery synods).

15. No minimum timescale is, however, specified for these stages in the Standing Orders so it would be possible to complete both much more rapidly than last time. That would mean that the timetable for new legislation could be much shorter than the time taken by defeated legislation, which was introduced in February 2009 and did not reach the final approval stage until July 2012 (when the debate was adjourned until November so that the House of Bishops could reconsider an amendment that it had made).

16. It would, therefore, be possible for legislation introduced in 2013 to complete all its stages in the lifetime of this Synod, which ends in July 2015. Pending the discussions with all interested parties in the early months of 2013 it is too soon, however, to offer a confident prediction of what the timescale will be given the imperative need to avoid a second failure.

William Fittall
Secretary General
General Synod
18 December 2012