Below is my speech in yesterday’s Westminster Hall Debate on the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women priests in the Church of England.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I had not intended to speak in this debate as I have to shoot off before the scheduled finish, but given the opportunity and as Members are disappointingly thin on the ground, I will just say a few words. I want to reassure those watching the debate that the attendance is no reflection on the issue’s importance. If anything, it shows how far we have come that this is not a controversial issue any more. It is of course also a Thursday and we have only a one-line Whip.
As the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) made clear, something that 20 years ago some predicted would be the end of the world has become a valued, valuable and wonderful part of our Church life. It may amuse hon. Members to learn that I was dragooned into joining the Movement for the Ordination of Women as a teenager, when my father was serving as a canon at Norwich cathedral, by the wife of the dean, Margaret Webster, who was one of the founding members of the movement. We also had in our home at the time a young student called Katharine Rumens, who has become a fantastic priest in the City of London. Along with the Campaign for Real Ale, the Movement for the Ordination of Women was something that I joined long before I joined the Labour party; it is what brought me into political activity and campaigning, and what a good way of learning how to campaign and lobby it was.
After all the terrible setbacks of the ’70s and ’80s, we were ultimately successful, and it fills me with great joy, as a founder member of what was probably called the teenage or young movement for the ordination of women, to be here 20 years on to celebrate something that is now so unremarkable, and to look forward to our first consecration of a woman bishop, hopefully this year,.
I pay tribute to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who has performed an absolutely sterling job. After that disastrous vote in the Synod at the end of the year before last, we were in shock. A general trauma made its way through most of the Church of England, and was felt in particular by women priests. How must they have felt at the outcome of that vote? After all the work, after the big majorities in the dioceses and synods, after the overwhelming support in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, how must they have felt to have the proposal fall at the final hurdle and miss the two-thirds majority in the House of Laity? There was a great deal of justified anger, but the right hon. Gentleman, supported by Members from across the House, made it absolutely plain to the powers that be over the road that the situation was intolerable and had to be addressed as quickly as possible.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the urgent and effective manner in which the new Archbishop of Canterbury has grasped the matter. I speak as a liberal Catholic, and he is not from my tradition, but I always had a slight inkling that it would require somebody from the evangelical tradition to get this through. He speaks the right language. What he will have achieved—if he, collectively with the Synod, achieves it this summer—will be remarkable and fantastic. After that vote, most of us had given up hope that we would get the Measure through before the next election and before the election of the new Synod.
I urge the Church to consider holding open currently vacant sees for just a little longer than they usually would. Interregnums often go on for several months, as did the recent one in Exeter, so it would not mean people waiting a great deal longer—I hope—before getting a new bishop. That would send out a really positive signal. I should not be rude, as we have a great bunch of bishops who do a fantastic job in the House of Lords, but one hears rumours that we are getting to the end of our talent pool, as regards male suffragans who can be promoted to diocesan bishop. That is certainly not the case when it comes to our senior women clergy, many of whom I can imagine would make absolutely first-class bishops. I want to name just a couple who have a relationship with my constituency. Jane Hedges, whom we exported from the Devon diocese, where she was a parish priest, was recently appointed Dean of Norwich. We have a fantastic canon at the cathedral called Anna Norman-Walker, who is also our diocesan missioner, and there are several other fantastic women priests in a diocese that was traditionally rather conservative.
When I first arrived in Exeter in the early ’80s, it was one of those arch-traditional Catholic dioceses that regularly sent people to Synod to argue against women’s ordination. We had a series of diocesan bishops, regrettably in my view, who opposed women’s ordination and women becoming bishops, including the most recently retired one—he was one of only two bishops who voted against in the vote at the end of the year before last. We now have a new bishop who is clearly and categorically in favour of women bishops. We still have the Chichesters out there, but when a diocese such as Exeter, which had a strong tradition of conservative, traditional Catholicism—if I may put it like that—can move in the way that it has, it shows how the Church of England has moved as a whole.
I want to finish with the point that I alluded to in my second intervention on the right hon. Member for Meriden, which was about the dire predictions made about the disastrous impact that women’s ordination would have on our relations with our sister Churches, the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Yes, the relationship has been up and down and bumpy, but I do not detect any serious, lasting and irrevocable damage. Do not forget that we have other important and valuable sister Churches, such as the Lutherans and Churches on the continent, and they welcome the direction in which the Church of England has moved.
I have also been heartened by comments by the new Pope, who is an absolute breath of fresh air after the previous one. He has said some encouraging things about women, gender, the role of women in the Church and how the Church needs to move away from its obsession with sexual morality and move towards issues of justice, gender equality and so forth. That is exciting. At some time, though not in my lifetime, I confidently expect the Roman Catholic Church to embrace the ministry of women, in exactly the same way as the Church of England has done. It is a theological inevitability. It may not happen in my lifetime, but the fact that we have done it, blazed a trail and shown how positive, successful, valuable, wonderful and holy it is will help progressive Catholics on the same road.
You can read the rest of the debate, including my further interventions, here.