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Address to Synod on Women Bishops, October 2000

Dr Muriel Porter, St John's Camberwell, Melbourne

On potentially controversial subjects, such as women bishops, the way we as church deal with both the subject and each other, is extremely important. Our parliamentary models of synod governance are excellent for the promotion of debate, but their built-in assumptions of winners and losers do not always give scope for a process of listening to each other. That is why I am speaking to you today not to lead a synod debate, but to present a report on what has been a remarkable, even inspiring, venture in co-operation.

The last General Synod meeting, held in Adelaide in 1998, began to explore different ways of approaching controversy in the church. A few key items for debate were introduced by two speakers who brought alternative points of view, giving due recognition to both sides of an issue. Women bishops was one of the topics treated in that way.

It was the first time the question of women bishops per se was seriously before the national church, and I am delighted that this important topic has been, since its inception, treated in such a fair-minded, irenic fashion. I stand here today as I stood before the 1998 General Synod, a strong supporter of the ordination of women to the three-fold order of the church's ministry. The fine ministry of women clergy in the Australian church since 1986 - they now constitute 10 per cent of our clergy nationally - has confirmed my theological stance that their calling is truly of God. I look forward keenly to the day the first woman bishop is consecrated in this country, and I hope it might be in this very diocese!

I stood on the platform at the Adelaide General Synod with Dr Ann Young from Sydney, who opposes the ordination of women on theological grounds. In every other style of debate on these matters, she and I would have been set up as opponents - and indeed, in the past, that is what we have been. But this time, we were able to present our alternative viewpoints as colleagues, seeking to work together and listen to each other as members of the same Body of Christ, and partners in the same Gospel.

When General Synod Standing Committee established a Women Bishops Working Group, I was appointed its chair and Ann its deputy chair. We have worked together closely for the past two and a half years, and have become very good friends in the process. Today I stand on this platform with Dr John Davis, another member of the working group. In the past, we would have been pitted against each other as opponents; today, we stand here as colleagues and firm friends.

We can both testify that the Women Bishops working group, containing as it does a fair representation of views from around the Australian Church, has from the outset tried to work together in the spirit of the 1998 General Synod debate - a spirit of trust and reconciliation. We have sought to honour the diversity in our church, without compromising our own consciences. We have put in many hours of work to date, and are now preparing our final recommendations for the next General Synod, to be held in Brisbane next July.

I cannot pretend that, despite all our work, we have come up with a magic formula. There is no a simple way in which I - and Archbishop Watson - can see our preference - women bishops welcomed among us - without offending other faithful members of our Church. Whatever the outcome in this and other controversial issues, there will be some who will be delighted and others who are distressed. We are agreed, though, that we no longer want outcomes where there are winners and losers, goodies and baddies. We want still to honour each other, no matter what transpires.

Those of you who were at the 1998 General Synod will remember that the original proposal calling for the preparation of legislation for women bishops, was amended to include the possibility of alternative episcopal oversight - that is, mechanisms by which those opposed in conscience to women bishops could be ministered to in a diocese which appointed a woman to the episcopate. General Synod wanted us to face this possibility, and how it might or might not work. That aspect of the debate is the most controversial - as it was at the 1998 General Synod.

So the working group has explored every possible avenue of alternative episcopal oversight, and has consulted widely. In particular, we invited responses to our interim report, published in August last year. We received 200 responses from dioceses, diocesan bishops, parishes, groups and individuals.

Overall, opinions polarised, not unexpectedly. There was strong support for legislation for women bishops without any form of alternative episcopal oversight, and on the other side, support for the most extreme model of oversight, a form of re-arrangement of the Australian church into non-geographic dioceses promoted from within the Diocese of Sydney.

The Working Group has now streamlined the possibilities it will be bringing to General Synod. Central to our proposals is legislation to enable the consecration of women bishops. But this legislation also offers a statement honouring diversity of views on this issue in the Australian church, as well as a range of proposals for providing low-key alternative episcopal ministry, mainly by a set of agreed protocols.

The radical non-geographic dioceses' model has shown itself to be so complex on legal and constitutional grounds - let alone on theological grounds - that we have not attempted to prepare draft legislation to implement it. Instead, the working group has prepared a paper outlining the kind of legislation General Synod would need to consider

If we want women bishops - and this diocese has twice declared it does - how do we want them? Are we prepared to support any form of alternative episcopal oversight for the sake of our unity? I do not wish to see anything that would undermine or demean either the office of the bishop or the dignity of women, but I am personally quite happy to support protocols or other simple mechanisms which would offer sensitive alternative episcopal ministry to those unable to accept the ministry of a woman bishop. The church already offers some alternatives in some areas; it is not without precedent. Some of the options we will be suggesting do not compromise the authority of the diocesan bishop, male or female, but are a genuine attempt to be a generous and inclusive church.

It is my hope and prayer that for the sake of Gospel, we will see women bishops soon in this Church, and at the same time, a degree of unity in diversity we did not dream was possible.


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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