How Long Will It Take To Appoint The First Woman Bishop?

Tomorrow, the Church of England’s General Synod will formally ‘make, enact, and promulge’ Amending Canon No. 33, thereby allowing women to enter the episcopate. Naturally, there has been a great deal of speculation as to when the first woman bishop will actually take office. Answering the question is tricky, though, for there are two types of bishoprics in the Church of England, and there are distinct processes for filling each one.

The main type of bishop is, of course, the diocesan bishop. There are forty dioceses in the Church of England, three of which are currently vacant. The process for choosing a diocesan bishop is (in)famously complex, but the gist of it is as follows: a church body called the Crown Nominations Commission comes up with a candidate and sends his (or now her) name to Downing Street. The Prime Minister then formally advises the Queen to ‘nominate’ the CNC’s candidate,[1] whereupon Her Majesty issues a Conge d’Elire (i.e., a ‘license to choose’) to the College of Canons of the relevant cathedral along with ‘Letters Missive’ telling them whom they should elect. By law, the College of Canons must elect the Crown’s nominee, so the election is just a formality.[2] The election must then be confirmed by the archbishop of the relevant province in another bit of historical pageantry.[3] Once the election has been confirmed, the bishopric is no longer considered vacant, though the new bishop’s public ministry usually does not begin until after his ceremonial installation.

The bottom line is that it can take a long time to fill a vacant diocesan bishopric, and vacancies of a year or more are not uncommon (at the moment, the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich has been vacant since October 20, 2013). The quickest way for a woman to become a diocesan bishop would be for the CNC to choose a woman for one of the three outstanding vacancies (namely St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Southwell and Nottingham, and Oxford). If they don’t, there might not be a woman diocesan bishop until late 2015 or early 2016.

It would be much faster to appoint a woman as a suffragan bishop. Suffragans can best be described as assistants to a diocesan bishop, and they are chosen through a much simpler process. Basically, the diocesan bishop chooses a candidate with the assistance of an Advisory Council and, subject to the approval of the archbishop of the province, forwards the name on to the Queen for formal appointment. This is done by Letters Patent, and there’s no election or confirmation. The are currently five vacant suffragan sees, and a woman could be chosen for any one of them, though the Suffragan See of Dunwich (no, not that Dunwich) in the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich may not be filled until the diocese itself is filled. Given the simplicity of the process, a woman suffragan bishop could potentially take office by the end of the year.

On a related note, there’s also talk that the Government will introduce legislation to speed up the process of bringing women bishops into the House of Lords as ‘Lords Spiritual.’ At the moment, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester automatically get seats while a further twenty-one bishops sit by order of seniority. According to the media, the three main parties are willing to support a short Government bill that would allow women bishops to enter the Lords sooner. The details are still vague at this point, but I suspect they’ll move to a system where the Church itself chooses which bishops sit in the Lords. That would be a sensible move that’s long overdue. Attending the House of Lords can be burdensome (particularly if your diocese is far from London), and it seems silly to give that privilege to people who don’t actually want it.


[1] Until recently, the CNC sent the Prime Minister two candidates, and he or she was free to recommend either one of them to the Queen (the Prime Minister could also ask the CNC to come up with an entirely different slate of names). But in 2007, Gordon Brown announced that he would only ask for one name, and he promised to automatically pass it along to the Queen. Although future Prime Ministers could theoretically play a more active role in choosing diocesan bishops, it seems unlikely that they will do so.

[2] Since the Reformation, no cathedral has ever been brave/foolish enough to defy the Crown. In the past, failure to elect the Crown’s nominee could have serious legal consequences. Although the penalties were abolished in the 1960s, the obligation to follow the Crown’s Letters Missive remains. If, however, a College of Canons refused to elect the Queen’s nominee, she could simply appoint him or her directly by Letters Patent.

[3] In the nineteenth century, there were attempts to use the confirmation process to block the appointment of controversial bishops. But the officials in charge of the ceremony usually ignored them, and the secular courts upheld their stance. The judges held that the Crown’s right of appointment is absolute, and the archbishop cannot second-guess the Sovereign.

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