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. Speaking just prior to the ‘winding up’ of the debate, the Bishop of Leicester responded to a small number of questions raised in the course of the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, I know I speak for all of us on this Bench in wanting to express our appreciation to your Lordships’ House for the serious, thoughtful and supportive way that your Lordships have considered this legislation, and to rehearse the most reverend Primate’s appreciation to the Government and Opposition Benches, and to the usual channels, for making it possible for the Bill to reach this stage so quickly.
It is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and to have the opportunity to address briefly the important issues she raised, although they do not bear, either directly or indirectly, on the substance of the legislation before us. The main point that it might be helpful to make is that the archbishops are guided by five fundamental principles that have been set before the House of Bishops and the General Synod, which are designed to ensure that the church can be what it is intended to be: a movement of people with different views who are united in following the same Lord. A church cannot behave like a political party or a tribe; it is an association of people whose differences are respected and among whom room is made for difference.
The particular guiding principles that relate to this, if I can ask your Lordships’ forbearance, are these. Since the Church of England will continue to share the historical episcopate with other churches—including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican communion that continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops—it will acknowledge that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican communion and the whole church of God. Secondly, since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests will continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican communion, the Church of England will remain committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures. I am sure that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York was bearing those principles in mind when he came to his conclusions about the ordination of the Bishop of Burnley.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked me to speculate whether a future woman Archbishop of Canterbury might take the same view. That is asking a lot. What we can notice is that in recent years opinion has been moving quite quickly in the church, as some of your Lordships have noted, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so. It is impossible to be certain about what the position may be in five or 10 years—to my most reverend friend I say, “It’s all right brother”—but it is quite possible that no such provision will be needed at that time. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has made it clear that the decision he made in this particular case should not be regarded as setting any precedent for future action.
I wonder if I could briefly pick up one or two other points raised in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, asked whether the major regional dioceses—she mentioned Birmingham and Manchester—should not automatically be sees attached to the Lords spiritual Bench, as London, Durham and so on all are. That point was raised in the discussion on the last round of Lords reform consideration and in the Select Committee on which I served. I have no doubt that that question will come before us again in the event of future reform of this House leading to a reduction in the number of Lords spiritual proportionate to a reduction in the size of the House.
As to the noble Baroness’s point about diversity of appointments, she will know that that is a matter receiving immediate consideration in the Church of England at the moment. The House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council are progressing a major report on the development of clergy towards senior leadership to ensure that it is more representative of the population as a whole and more diverse.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised a concern about positive discrimination. We have tended to think in terms of “corrective action”. What is happening here is intended to correct positive discrimination against women—a situation that has gone on for too long—and a fixed period during which corrective action puts the compass needle back to where it should be clearly commands overwhelming support.
A number of other speakers have referred to the capacity of women to rise to the challenge of serving effectively in your Lordships’ House and becoming diocesan bishops. I assure your Lordships that our parliamentary unit has already started to put in place high-quality induction programmes and procedures that will offer the best possible support to any women diocesan bishop who is appointed in the near future.
I think that I have dealt with most of the significant points that may require some response. The purpose of bringing forward this Bill is not to serve the interests of the Church of England but to serve the interests of the nation and its good governance so that, as others have said, the voice of women bishops can properly be heard here. We are absolutely confident that they will make a major contribution.
I joined the Movement for the Ordination of Women in 1974. It took a further two decades before the first women were ordained priests—as it happens, at almost exactly the point at which I was ordained a bishop, so I then spent the next two decades longing for the moment when the women would join me in that gathering.
I shall be retiring in July this year. It is unlikely that the diocesan Bishops’ Benches will have a woman joining us then but it is very likely that a woman diocesan bishop will be appointed in the near future. I would be very touched and moved if she were able to occupy the seat that I shall be vacating later this year, and I am confident that today the House will come to the same conclusion.