Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Ecumenical sensitivity meets church law on women bishops


Women Bishops The last pane of the 'stained glass ceiling' was removed last week for most Australian Anglicans. Until 1986, women could be as committed Christians as their brothers in Christ, but not ordained as deacons. Until 1992 the same applied to women being ordained as priests (at least in dioceses that passed the rule change needed). Now Australian Anglican women who are priests can become bishops — and have been eligible since 1995, it turns out!

The story made media headlines. But underneath this somewhat unexpected ruling from the church's highest legal body, the Appellate Tribunal, lies a wider, richer story. A decision made for ecumenical and post-colonial reasons turns out to have enabled the change.

Tribunal members must give written reasons for their decisions. The 79-page report setting these out requires close reading, and reveals that the conclusion is more strongly based than the 4/3 vote (2/2 from the lawyers, three of them being judges, and 2/1 from the bishops) might suggest. The judges' review of the legal and historical issues is fascinating; the bishops bring a wider theological perspective.

What lay behind the Tribunal's conclusion? The Anglican Church of Australia is governed by a constitution, as one would expect. Unlike most bodies, however, it took 36 years to be agreed upon, from 1926 to 1962. The struggle revolved around the balance between local and national powers. If European Australia has multiple beginnings and is shaped by the 'tyranny of distance' and state rivalries, the Anglican story is fiercer, because the beginnings of the major dioceses were largely aligned with the emerging 'parties' of the Church of England in the 1840s.

Melbourne's first bishop was Evangelical, and Sydney, steeped in the independent tradition of two generations of chaplains, was firmly Protestant. On the other hand, the first bishops of Adelaide (then including SA and WA) and Newcastle (then including Queensland) were of more Catholic sympathy. The dioceses also have different constitutional set-ups: Melbourne (and dioceses formed from it) are based on state law, while Newcastle and Adelaide (and dioceses formed from them) are based on 'compacts' made between bishop, clergy and laity.

Women BishopsBroadly speaking, Sydney held out for local autonomy in the constitution, while others wanted national decisions to apply across the nation. The deadlock was resolved in 1962 after the first visit by an Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher who — so the story goes — drafted the constitution on the voyage home. The outcome is a complex compromise: key issues need high majorities in General Synod, but the Synod's decisions only apply locally where a diocese accepts them.

When a question arises about a decision (local or national) being constitutional it can be referred to the Appellate Tribunal, which consists of three diocesan bishops and four judges elected by the General Synod. Previous Tribunal decisions cleared the way for women to be ordained deacon and priest, along with General Synod decisions that needed 2/3 majorities by the lay members, clergy and bishops separately. While strong majorities supported female bishops, the motion failed twice in General Synod (in 2001 and 2004) to get the necessary 2/3 majority in the clergy and laity (the bishops' vote stayed over 80 per cent). The matter is not on the agenda for the October 2007 meeting — presumably it was deemed pointless and divisive to raise it again in that context.

Following the 2004 ‘non-passing' ('defeat' hardly applies when there is a solid majority in favour) some 25 members used their right to raise the deeper question with the Tribunal, 'would it be unconstitutional to ordain a woman who is a priest as a bishop?' And as we now know, the Tribunal answered 'no' for diocesans, though a 1966 Canon which presumes that clergy are male would prevent women being appointed as assistant bishops (which can be corrected locally).

The 2007 Tribunal decision hangs on the following sequence of events:

The 1962 constitution presumes existing law of the Church of England, so that women were unable to be ordained. Section 74(6) states, In the case of lay but not clerical persons words in this Constitution importing the masculine shall include the feminine.

It also required baptised people who had not been confirmed by a bishop to be so confirmed to become Anglicans — a decidedly unecumenical position in relation to Protestants.

In 1966 'Assistant' bishops were not mentioned, so General Synod set down conditions for their appointment - and this relies on the 1962 assumption that clergy are male. In 1981 General Synod agreed that baptised Christians may become Anglicans by being 'received' rather than being confirmed by a bishop, and that such a person is as Anglican as any other.

In 1986 General Synod agreed that Anglican women could be ordained as deacons. In 1989 Section 74(1) of the constitution required that a bishop-elect have their 'canonical fitness' confirmed, referring back to English and colonial conditions — including being confirmed.

A long Constitution-changing process began, requiring that a bishop-elect must be baptised, 30 years of age, and a priest to be 'canonically fit' — confirmation is not mentioned. In 1990 the Tribunal ruled that the legal barriers to women being ordained as priests would be removed if General Synod passes a canon 'clarifying' this possibility. This clarification passed in 1992, and women in many dioceses were ordained priests (Sydney being the main exception).

In 1995 the constitutional change about the 'canonical fitness' of a bishop-elect was completed, allowing 'received' as well as 'confirmed' Anglicans to be bishops.

Finally, in 2007 the Appellate Tribunal ruled that there is no constitutional barrier to women being elected, confirmed and consecrated as bishops, though the Assistant Bishops' Canon must be changed to allow a priest who is a woman to take up such a position.

The Tribunal decision recognises that the change to 'priest' from 'confirmed' in the 'canonical fitness' of a bishop-elect — largely made for ecumenical and post-colonial reasons — also has the effect of allowing women who are priests to be ordained as bishops.

Two separate concerns, one about seeing 'church' as bigger than 'Church of England', the other about seeing humankind as more than 'men', came together in this unexpected outcome. Coming as it does in the lead-up to the forthcoming General Synod, the ruling may free the Anglican Church of Australia to place the evangelical mission of the church catholic as it core business, and to consider new questions on the basis of the wider church and wider world.




submit a comment

Existing comments

Dr Sherlock's conclusion is welcome:

"[T]he ruling may free the Anglican Church of Australia to place the evangelical mission of the church catholic as it core business, and to consider new questions on the basis of the wider church and wider world."

I do hope so, but the Anglican church will not be free of inward-looking agonies until it resolves its present failure to fully include gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.

Brian McKinlay | 04 October 2007  

Pardon the yawn... Not, I hasten to add, from Dr Sherlock's analysis, but from the tragic comedy that is still being enacted within the Anglican church in Australia as large sections of it refuse to accept the humanity of women.

The Appellate tribunal has taken two years to reach the unremarkable conclusion that if women were capable of being deacons twenty years ago they are now capable of being bishops! And all that has prevented that occurring until now has been the use (or abuse) of Canon law by a conservative minority to impose its will on the whole church.

Warwick | 05 October 2007  

Similar Articles

Australia's ageing theological workforce

  • Neil Ormerod
  • 03 October 2007

In the past, Australia has produced a number of theologians and biblical scholars of international standing. But the future is bleak, with 37 per cent intending to retire within five years. Structural rationalisation must start now.