Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in support of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

On 12th February 2015 the House of Lords debated the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill at Second Reading. The Bill will bring forward the time at which the first female diocesan bishops can sit as Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the Bill his wholehearted support. He said:

Archbishop of CanterburyThe Archbishop of Canterbury:

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for those opening remarks. I wish to put on record my personal thanks and those of the church to the Government for securing the time to bring this Bill forward, and to the Opposition for giving their support to the proposal. All those on this Bench—we are reasonably numerous today for some reason—are deeply conscious of the privilege that we enjoy of sitting in this House. It is invariably educational and occasionally striking. I have to say, though, that I will go away today with a lasting sense of worry that the busking in Canterbury about which we heard earlier was in fact my sermon on Christmas Eve in the open air.

This Bill, if passed, will mean that at last this will be the last Parliament where any Bench of either House is occupied solely by men. A little under four months ago I sought the approval of this House for the measure that the synod had passed to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England. That process was completed in November, and as the Minister has already indicated, late in January we had the wonderful occasion at York Minster where Libby Lane was consecrated a bishop.

The two clauses that form the Bill reflect the settled view of the Lords Spiritual, the House of Bishops and those senior women who were part of the consultative process. During our discussions a number of options were considered on how best to effect these changes, with the proposals set out in the Bill commanding the widest consensus. Incidentally, for those in your Lordships’ House who may be wondering why we are debating a government Bill and not a Church of England measure, the answer of course is that membership of the House of Lords is entirely a matter for Parliament and as such lies outside the legislative powers devolved to the General Synod.

The Minister has set out clearly the rationale for the Bill. There are likely to be some women bishops, as there are some men, for whom membership of the Lords becomes a significant part of their ministry, yet a seniority system inevitably discriminates against those who arrive later. Without this Bill, on appointment a woman diocesan bishop would effectively be asked to join the back of a queue of up to 14 places to get into this House. At anticipated rates of retirement, that would mean that if a woman were appointed this year to one of the sees currently vacant, she would not reach this House in the lifetime of the next Parliament. We would be in the bizarre situation that women would be actively and visibly involved as bishops of the Church of England in all aspects of our national ministry except here, as Members of the Bishops’ Bench, so long as that is the case.

The 1878 Act continued the system begun four decades earlier by the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847, in which the number of seats for Lords Spiritual was fixed at 26—the number it had been since the Reformation. This was barely 15 years after the opposition of many prelates to the Great Reform Bill, when such was the popularity of the stance taken by the Bishops’ Benches that my predecessor, William Howley, was attacked in his carriage in that notable city of disorder, Canterbury. The account, which may be apocryphal, has Howley’s chaplain exclaiming, “Your Grace, they have thrown a dead cat at me!”, to which the archbishop replied, “You may thank God, sir, it was not a live one”.

So the queue was created not out of a desire for bishops to spend their first few years finding their feet in their dioceses, but simply because there were going to be more people than places. In the case of the occupants of the five senior sees not affected by this Bill, we have continued to enter automatically. I did so when appointed to Durham, without any previous service as a bishop. So, too, did my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, who is in his place today. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London had been a suffragan bishop in Stepney but took charge of our largest diocese by population and became a Member of this House at the same time.

I doubt whether the Bill will prevent any man bishop eventually taking up his seat, although it will lengthen the period of waiting. The first man likely to be affected by the Bill, should it receive Royal Assent before the election, will be the Bishop of Lincoln, who is now first in the queue. It is worth quoting his response after the Bill was published:

“On the one hand, this is quite frustrating, because greater Lincolnshire is under-represented in the House of Lords … However, far more frustrating has been the wait for women to be able to be ordained bishop, and for an anachronism to be consigned to history. For that to happen completely, it is absolutely right that women bishops are fully represented in all levels of society, parliament and the Church, and I look forward very much to seeing that happen”.

I am aware that some Members of the House wonder whether 10 years is too much time or too little—we have had expressions of both—to achieve a better balance between the sexes on these Benches. The period is a matter of judgment. The view of the church was that it needed to be long enough to make a real difference but not so long that a temporary departure from the normal principles of non-discrimination became semi-permanent. A decade has the virtue of being both the average length of time in office for a diocesan bishop, and the length of two fixed-term Parliaments. By then, I believe that we shall have achieved much more diversity on these Benches.

Quite what the pattern of appointments will be over the next few years remains to be seen. Once things have settled down, my expectation would be that many women who become diocesan bishops will, like their male colleagues, learn the ropes first by suffering—

Noble Lords: Oh!

The Archbishop of Canterbury:  By serving as suffragans—I always have trouble with that. Suffering as servants or serving as suffragans—it works either way.

However, that is far from the universal pattern among men, and I shall be very disappointed indeed in these early years if we do not see a number of very experienced and qualified senior women priests move straight into diocesan posts. That is not because we are going to operate any kind of quota system. It will simply be that the consequence of removing a barrier means that their skills and experience, which have not been deployed as they should have been, will then be available.

Before I conclude my remarks, I will briefly say a word about recent events and their relevance to enabling the Church of England to remain a broad church. The arrangements agreed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York for the consecration service for the new Bishop of Burnley, a traditional Catholic, were the subject of criticism from some quarters for reasons which I entirely understand. However, like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, I believe that the five principles in the House of Bishops’ declaration, which formed part of the General Synod’s agreement to women bishops, require a degree of gracious restraint and forbearance on all sides. They commit the church to seeking the flourishing of all parts of the church, whatever their views on this question. They are not one-way traffic—far from it. The fact that the new Bishop of Burnley attended the consecration of the Bishop of Stockport and that she then attended his consecration despite their theological differences over women’s ministry is precisely the sort of mutual flourishing that we are seeking to promote. The photograph of them giving each other a good hug after his consecration was worth a thousand words—and might be a lesson for this House.

Enabling women to join these Benches as soon as possible can only be a positive step for this House, for Parliament and for all those who welcome the many blessings that female leadership in ministry will bring to our national life. This is a simple, straightforward and necessary Bill. I wholeheartedly support it and commend it to the House.


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