Are bishops above the law?

There was an excellent adjournment debate in the House of Commons this week. Not attended by many and not reported that widely either. It was secured by Robert Key MP, the member for Salisbury, whom I remember meeting earlier in the year, when I was preaching in Salisbury Cathedral.

The question that he was raising was whether the Church of England would be breaking the law if, having agreed that women could be consecrated as bishops, they were then discriminated against by being ineligable for the same Episocpal functions as men. In the case of the Church of England, of course, Parliament is part of the process of changing church law. However, the argument applies to all churches, whether or not they are established. (This was something that Evan Harris MP seemed to find difficult to grasp in the debate – he only wanted to talk about disestablishment, which was not the point).

It is worth keeping an eye on these debates. There are strong parallels between the legislation on sex discrimination and the legislation on discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.

It is my view that the current election process for the new Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway breaks canon law because the bishops have acted in ways to limit who can be nominated as a candidate by requiring a promise from them about whether or not they are in a gay relationship. It is also my view that it might be illegal because the ban on gay people being nominated involves direct discrimination and no case has been made for using the rather narrow exemptions that are included in employment law allowing religious organisations to discriminate in very limited circumstances.

I believe that Episcopal authority is being undermined by the moratoria. It is untenable in an Episcopal system for bishops to be seen to break canon law or to behave in ways which might break the law of the land.

Every time employment legislation is raised in General Synod, we are told that the church wishes to regulate its own affairs and to do so to ensure that everyone is treated with at least the same levels of protection as secular law would afford. Those promises seem rather hollow to me right now. The time has come for the bishops either to return to what is legally, morally and canonically correct or we may perhaps have to face the uncomfortable fact that it is the Episcopate itself which needs reform.

Oh, and don’t forget to watch that parliamentary debate. The video is available here.

The relevant legislation Revision Committee met yesterday and took a step backwards from making bishops who happen to be women also bishops who are second class bishops. More details here


  1. So – when is someone going to challenge this in a court of law? We’re a few weeks behind you on the same road, here in A&TI.

  2. I’d like to think that everyone involved would prefer this to be sorted out outside the courts.

    It is unseemly for the bishops to be behaving in this way and I think that at least some of them know that. I also know that they know that behaving in an unseemly way is even worse than behaving illegally in our church.

    I think it is quite likely that our bishops know how foolish it would be to pursue a policy which would allow a situation to develop where bishops are reminded repeatedly during their episcopacy that their election was irregular.

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