There has been a little local difficulty following the announcement that Philip North is to be the next Bishop of Sheffield. Except that it hasn’t been little or local. Leading the charge (once more) has been the Dean of Oxford, Martyn Percy, who is quite clear that this appointment lacks integrity and that Philip should immediately withdraw. There are several things worth noting about his response, not least his own claimed ability to know what Philip’s own thinking must be, and the measure of what is acceptable in a bishop:
Sheffield is a go-ahead, vibrant, progressive city, with cutting-edge universities and research-led industries. It is thoroughly modern. The public will neither comprehend nor welcome this rather fogeyish sacralised sexism of the religious organisation known simply as ‘The Society’, whose Council of Bishops includes Bishop Philip North.
The measure of credibility, it seems, is whether or not the Church appears to be ‘modern’. He goes on to state:
We can’t speak with authenticity publicly, when we still sanction & sacralise sexism: CofE is just made to look like an odd reactionary sect.
It is quite striking how illiberal Percy’s liberalism is; anyone who is not as tolerant as him simply will not be tolerated: ‘Tolerating intolerance is not virtuous practice!’ The obvious response to that is that we should not tolerate Percy’s intolerance in turn, highlighting the incoherence of this position. As it happens, Philip and Libby Lane (pictured together above), the first woman to be ordained a bishop, meet regularly together and pray for one another, and attended each other’s consecrations as bishops. Such mutual respect of difference is, according to Percy, lacking in integrity and impossible to sustain.
I am not sure that I am surprised at Percy’s latest wrecking ball swinging into the Church in the public domain. (In the age of social media, are we now condemned to do all our disagreeing in the glare of publicity? Is there no longer any scope for disagreeing together in private?) But I have been quite surprised by the others who have been drawn into this. David Runcorn, so often a sane voice in discussion, comments:
What is so hard to get about this?
That to have as your diocesan bishop a man (so richly gifted in other ways)– who does not think you should have been ordained,– who will not ordain those like you.– who does not believe the sacrament at your hands is valid and will not receive it from you
is undermining of you and your God given ministry.
If causing people to ‘feel undermined’ is now the unforgivable sin, then of course there is no room for difference of views in the C of E. As it happens, Philip appears to be acutely aware of this issue, which is why he withdrew from his appointment to the See of Whitby in 2012. There are several key areas on which I would disagree with Philip, but I know from his speeches at Synod and at our last diocesan conference that he is a passionate, engaging, energetic and mission-focussed person. And what is more curious is the lack of attention given to the actual experience of women in his previous area. Mark Ireland, Archdeacon of Blackburn, observes:
I know women in Blackburn diocese who were really worried when Philip’s appointment to Burnley was announced. However in the last two years Philip has won huge respect and affection across the diocese from clergy of all traditions, female as much as male. I disagree with him profoundly about the ordination of women, but being committed to the Five Guiding Principles means seeking mutual flourishing and working together for the mission of Christ. I can only say that I have been hugely blessed to work with such a genuine, godly, wise and missional bishop, and I know he has worked really hard to listen to and support women priests in the diocese. Please give him a chance!
But it appears as though none of this matters.
Mike Higton has raised a question of the theological coherence of the agreed position, when he says:
The Five Guiding Principles don’t mandate any particular response to the question of who can or can’t become a diocesan bishop. Only an (inherently controversial) interpretation of the Principles can do that.
But a response from Church House points that the question of diocesan appointments was explored at the time of the debate:
In addition, dioceses are entitled to express a view, in the statement of needs prepared during a vacancy in see, as to whether the diocesan bishop should be someone who will or will not ordain women. In dioceses where the diocesan bishop does not ordain women he should ensure that a bishop who is fully committed to the ordained ministry of women is given a role across the whole diocese for providing support for female clergy and their ministry.
There are two important things to note about this whole issue and the questions it has raised. The first is that the real objection here is not so much to Philip North as a person as to the principle of ‘mutual flourishing’. The Five Guiding Principles make affirmation of women’s ministry both clear and non-negotiable:
- Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;
- Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;…
The discussion between David Runcorn and Mark Ireland highlights this as the issue. David says:
Can I make clear that I am in no doubt as to the personal qualities +Philip. The issue for me is theology and personal qualities of friendliness and graciousness do not bypass that.
To which Mark responds:
Your issue is therefore not with Philip himself but with the Five Guiding Principles and, by extension, those the diocese elected to the CNC. These are both processes approved by General Synod after much consideration. I am deeply worried by any group thinking they can cherry pick assurances about mutual flourishing given and accepted in good faith.
What this then indicates is that the agreement reached, widely seen as an early triumph of Justin Welby’s negotiating skills in holding together ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ on this issue, is simply not secure. If ‘liberals’ feel happy to question and undermine both the agreement and those affected by it, it seems as though the widespread agreement reached has no standing and commands no respect.
The second issue highlighted is what it means for future difference of view in the Church. The issue of women’s ministry is actual less complex and less divisive, and in principle easier to reach agreement on than the issue of sexuality, since it is primarily an issue of recognition rather than an issue of morality. Suppose two dioceses were to take a different view on the recognition of women’s ministry. You would, at the border, then have two parishes adjacent to one another, where in one an ordained woman’s ministry was recognised, welcomed and celebrated, and in the other it simply was not recognised. That situation would be difficult and indeed painful, but it is possible to imagine. But suppose in those two parishes there were officially sanctioned opposing views on sexuality. In one, both laity and clergy could enter same-sex marriages and this would be celebrated. In the other, the official position would be that such a situation should be met with a call to repentance. Such a contrast is not sustainable, not least in law, and is completely contradictory.
One of the leading voices in the call for change in the Church said to me recently ‘We are not calling for a change in the doctrine of marriage, but just that clergy in same-sex marriages are acknowledged.’ But to do this is to change the Church’s current teaching on marriage, which is that other-sex marriage is the only appropriate place for sexual relations, and sex outside this context should be met with a call for repentance.
But the debate about Philip North highlights something much more fundamental: despite the many and repeated statements, it is becoming more and more clear that those who want to see change in the Church’s teaching are not, in fact, seeking to ‘agree to disagree’. Any future settlement (if one can be reached) will be subject to constant protest, just as this one has been. I can see the headline now: ‘Continuing homophobia cannot be tolerated in the Church’. As someone Tweeted to me yesterday:
I’m not sure that compromise/agreement is possible, or even necessarily desirable.
If the settlement on women’s ministry is not sustainable, there is no chance whatever of any settlement on the different views around sexuality. The debate really is a decision between two incompatible views.
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