A response to the nomination of the Rt Revd Philip North to, and his resignation from, the Diocese of Sheffield March 2017
Affirming Catholicism has watched with deep concern the circumstances surrounding the nomination of the Rt Reverend Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield and his subsequent withdrawal from that nomination. We are very aware of the hurt caused to many of those involved, including to many of the clergy and lay people in the Diocese of Sheffield and +Philip himself. We believe that the current situation reflects a failure to take seriously – on several sides – the Five Guiding Principles (see below) but we also believe that it illustrates how difficult is going to be to put these principles into practice, and reveals how much hurt and distrust still exists within the Church of England around questions of the ordination of women and the place in the Church of those who cannot accept it. It seems to us that the Church of England needs to reflect carefully on the three concepts which underpin the Five Guiding Principles: simplicity, reciprocity and mutuality.
We have been surprised by the apparent lack of recognition in some quarters of the fact that the Church of England has since 1994 been living with a situation in which a small minority of its bishops are in some sense “not in communion” with their female clergy. This situation existed before the admission of women to the episcopate in the Church of England, and we believe that reflecting on experiences of such situations can shed some light on what has happened over the past weeks.
There can be no question that clergy – including female clergy – and lay people who affirm the ordination of women can flourish in dioceses in which the diocesan bishop does not ordain women. Indeed, the Five Principles were in part predicated on the fact that relationships in such contexts had been found to be not only workable, but capable of promoting flourishing amongst all the clergy and lay people of such dioceses. It should probably also be recognised, however, that the dioceses where this is the case have often had a long history of having bishops who have had doubts about the ordination of women, and that this self-understanding has played a role in how relationships function.
Moreover, it is important that the complexities in describing experiences of ministry not be underestimated. The same situation may be experienced by different people in very different ways. One priest may experience the ministry of her bishop who does not recognise her priestly ordination as personally supportive and deeply affirming. Another may experience the ministry of the same bishop as profoundly undermining and unfriendly.
It must also be recognised that very difficult situations have sometimes arisen, in which female clergy have found themselves subject to discrimination, or opponents of women’s ministry have been appointed to parishes without proper consultation even when female clergy were already in post.
Those who do not accept the ordination of women have similar stories and mixed experiences from their own perspective.
We are aware too that the two positions which the Church of England is seeking to hold together are rooted in very different – and even opposed – understandings of what it means for women to be created in the image of God. For those who cannot accept the ministry of ordained women or those ordained by a woman, women are created spiritually equal but are called to different offices or ministries, or to a different place in the order of creation. For those who rejoice at the ordination of women, this is a fulfilment of a gospel imperative to equality, articulated in Paul’s recognition that “In Christ there is no male of female” (Galatians 3:28), and only slowly recognised after many centuries, and now anchored also in law. It is very hard for some of those who believe this is the case to understand how it can be right to take a different view on the ministry of women, or how that ministry can be properly affirmed by a diocesan bishop who does not ordain women.
All this results in complex series of relationships which are not easy to negotiate. And all too often it is the bad news stories which have been shared, whilst reports of flourishing across difference have been less prevalent. We believe that it is not always appreciated how much hurt has been caused and trust lost though the way in which the Church of England decided to proceed, not only in the ordination of women to the episcopate, but also in the ordination of women to the priesthood. We suggest that it would be helpful for the Church of England to compile a series of case studies which offer examples of mutual flourishing across difference, whilst being realistic about the difficulties which are sometimes expressed.
The settlement which the Church of England reached in order for women to be ordained to the priesthood and to the episcopate may be seen as theologically or ecclesiologically inconsistent. Consciously paradoxical, it was intended to enable the Church of England to move forward and the whole church to flourish. The Five Guiding Principles affirm that the Church is a community, not an organisation, and that its business is love, not unanimity.
What has happened in Sheffield raises profound questions about the integrity of the Church of England’s paradoxical way forward. If the Church of England is to make progress in moving forward together over the issue of same-sex blessings and same-sex marriage and leaving behind the double-think that LGBTI clergy currently face, it will be necessary to develop a similar accommodation whereby we agree to live together with profound disagreement. The current situation has shown vividly how painfully little trust exists in the Church of England across differences about the ordination of women. It shows the immense challenges facing the Church of England as it seeks to move forward together with a similar respect for difference on the issue of human sexuality.
Affirming Catholicism believes that the church is not a place in which there need to be winners and losers. Rather, other ways of living with difference are possible. These require of all involved patience, tolerance and openness – and in this way the fostering of trust.
The Five Guiding Principles are: