Independent reviewer may rule on women bishop rows

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An NHS-style ombudsman could be set up to rule on disputes within the Church of England when it finally approves women bishops.

The Church’s national assembly, the General Synod, will be asked to back the creation of an “independent reviewer” post next month to rule on complaints over arrangements to cater for traditionalists who object to women bishops.

The proposal comes amid growing optimism about a “hopeful phase” which could see legislation introducing women bishops given approval ahead of schedule by next year.

The move comes after bitter recriminations within the Church of England after legislation failed narrowly to get approval at the General Synod last November.

More pressure was piled on the Church last month when the Church in Wales voted to allow the first women bishops.

Under new proposals from the Church of England women bishops would be introduced with a house of bishops “declaration” setting out guidance on arrangements for parishes where congregations reject female ministry.

An independent reviewer, appointed by the archbishops and with the backing of lay and clergy representatives in the General Synod, would be given power to investigate where complaints were made about the arrangements.

Clergy who failed to co-operate with the ombudsman’s inquiries could be subject to disciplinary proceedings.

“This is an ombudsman-type process, the real power comes through being able to investigate and publish findings. It is not in itself a disciplinary process,” said General Synod secretary general William Fittall.

“Although the fact that the regulations are made under canon law will mean that if a priest or bishop simply fails to engage with the independent reviewer then that in itself could be a disciplinary offence.”

The proposal will be debated by the General Synod when it meets next month in London amid optimism that it could give final approval to legislation introducing women bishops by 2014, a year ahead of the expected schedule

Mr Fittall said 13 out of 15 members of a steering committee which drew up the new package of proposals voted to commend it to the General Synod.

These included prominent opponents of women bishops including the Rev Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform, the conservative evangelical grouping and the Rt Rev Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, from the Anglo-Catholic wing.

Mr Fittall, who described the collapse of women bishops legislation last year as a “train crash”, said it would be “very serious” for the Church of England if the legislation failed again at final approval stage.

“This is the first time since discussions on women bishops started 13 years ago that a complete package of proposals has been agreed by people with such a wide range of views,” he said.

He added: “I think we are at the beginning of a new and a hopeful phase.”