Women’s ordained ministry has not stemmed CofE decline

 

In Westminster Hall this week the Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP led a short debate on the role and contribution of women to the ordained ministry of the Church of England. The debate celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the first women as priests in the CofE and looked ahead, both to the ongoing process to legislate for female bishops, as well as enabling them to sit in the House of Lords without delay.

Sir Tony Baldry MP responded in his capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, and contributions were made by Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP, Sir Peter Bottomley MP and Helen Goodman MP. The Equalities Minister Helen Grant MP was also present to hear the speeches. Sir Tony’s speech is reproduced in full below:

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) for initiating the debate and providing the House with an opportunity to celebrate the contribution over the past 20 years of ordained women clergy to the Church of England. I also thank her for providing me with an opportunity to advise the House on where the Church of England now stands in respect of women bishops, which I shall do later. We are all grateful for the presence and support during the debate of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).

Sir Peter Bottomley: If you will allow me, Mrs Brooke, I wish to apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I meant to rise to catch your eye after she had, and I apologise for jumping up when I did. If she had spoken, three men and three women would have spoken in the debate, which would have been the perfect balance.

Sir Tony Baldry: That is a timely intervention. For anyone reading the debate in Hansard, I should explain that, although I am effectively responding to the debate, I am not a member of the Government. I am by statute appointed by the Crown as Second Church Estates Commissioner, so I am accountable neither to the Government nor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, as the Bishop of London pointed out to me shortly after I was appointed, I am, like the Dean of Westminster, accountable only to God and the Queen—that is how he put it. This is not a ministerial response, then, but one I make in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was absolutely right to say that the ordination of women has unleashed an appetite in other women to come forward for ordination. She was also right to set out some of the many qualitative contributions that women have made to ordained ministry and, indeed, the pivotal role of many women clergy. We were also fortunate this afternoon to have heard some excellent and helpful speeches from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), all of whom are members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the Committee of both Houses that considers Church of England measures when they come to Parliament—as indeed is my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden.

The right hon. Member for Exeter was absolutely right in making clear the urgency and effectiveness with which the Archbishop of Canterbury grasped the issue of making progress towards sorting out the General Synod on the issue of women bishops after its very unhappy vote. The Archbishop clearly recognised that there was a need to get a grip on that issue and get a grip he did.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is going back to Exeter this weekend, and I hope he takes back the good news from yesterday’s Budget that, between all of us, we were able to secure from the Chancellor £20 million towards repair of cathedrals. If I may say so, that indicates that the Church of England is taken seriously by Government. There is a recognition that it is sometimes difficult to raise money to repair the electrics, or the roof or guttering. That fund is meant to be put towards such problems and will be welcome news, I hope, to cathedral cities such as Exeter.

Mr Bradshaw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his letter outlining the details of that fund—it was in my postbag this morning. I congratulate him on the successful lobbying he has clearly conducted with the Government to deliver that support.

Sir Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those comments. It was a team effort. We also have to thank Lord Cormack in the other place, who brought all the deans together, who then made their views known to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). In due course, he made his views known to the Treasury. It was a good example, as so often happens in this place, of the House working across parties consensually and collaboratively to secure a result that we all wanted to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West, who is the church warden of St Margaret’s, was absolutely right in his comments that we all now see women priests as normal and natural, and that we all hope to see a situation in which women as bishops will equally be seen as normal and natural.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who has been a great supporter of women in the Church, appropriately made the point that the best realisation of the hopes of all those who had supported the ordination of women priests, way back when she had done so in the 1980s and earlier, is the work that women priests are now doing in our parishes.

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