Mourning our infidelity

The passing of the measure to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England was not a victory for liberal revisionists in the church. It was the overwhelming sense amongst evangelicals, Catholics, charismatics and liberals that this was now where God was leading our church. The Women Bishops measure would not have gone through the General Synod without the co-operation of many traditionalists. I say co-operation, rather than agreement, because that is what it was.  Opposition remained. For conservative evangelicals it was on biblical and ethical grounds – they felt that scriptural exegesis meant women should not become bishops. For Anglo-Catholics it was on identity and sacramental grounds – they felt that women could not become bishops. But as we went into Synod for the final debate, several Anglo-Catholic friends came to me, separately, to extend a hand of friendship across our theological divide and tell me they were now going to abstain.  I found this gesture of respect and reconciliation very moving. Amongst many key speeches, Adrian Vincent, a member of the Catholic party, shared his struggle with conscience and scripture, as he made the difficult decision neither to vote against, nor abstain, but to vote the measure through in faithfulness to those who elected him. His one caveat was that there should be ‘enough provision for traditionalists to enable them to remain in the Church of England with theological integrity.’

Those who have never struggled with biblical exegesis, or obedience to Scriptural tradition will not understand this. The reality for the rest of us is that it requires prayer and deep discernment to be faithful to centuries of Christian teaching and understanding in the world we live in today. We make our decisions in faith, wrestling in praying and hoping that God’s will, not ours, be done. And we live with the full awareness that we might be wrong. This is precisely why we need each other, especially those whose conscience and discipline is greater than our own. As we affirm, with Luther, ‘Here we stand, we can do no other’ we always need to recognize that those who stand somewhere else might well have deep spiritual insights, which we need to learn from.

Five principles were drawn up to help the church move forward in our call to unity on women bishops. The first principle states that the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally and legally, without reference to gender; the second made it clear that those coming for ordination must accept this.  The clarity of this is indisputable. This measure could not be interpreted as endorsing two integrities, two sorts of calling, two doctrines, two positions pulling against each other.  The church recognized, without ambiguity, that women are called to episcopal office.

The magnitude of this principle cannot be underestimated. A couple of decades earlier, many Anglo-Catholic traditionalists had left the Anglican Church for the Church of Rome after Synod voted for the ordination of women to the priesthood. Yet the 1992 measure had been tempered with an Act of Synod, talk of ‘a second integrity’ and parallel jurisdictions, with the establishment of traditionalist ‘flying bishops’ to support and pastor the opponents. The 2014 measure was stark by comparison, offering only pastoral provision. Those Catholic and Conservative Evangelicals with grave misgivings were given no straws to clutch, no ambiguity to salve their conscience. If they wanted to remain in the Church of England, they had to recognize that women could, and would, be bishops.

The haemorrhage of those who have left on principle since 2014 is small in comparison to twenty years earlier. So why did they stay? Quite simply, it is because they belong. Those uneasy about women in the episcopate remain loyal Anglicans; the Church of England is their spiritual home: the place of their baptism, their worship and their Christian community. But it is also because of the Church’s assurances. This was strongly expressed in another of the five principles, which specifically addressed those who had misgivings about the ‘sameness’ of vocations across gender differences. ‘The Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.’

The selection of Philip North to the see of Sheffield was the first opportunity the church had to manifest its own integrity in upholding that principle. The consecration of ten women bishops has made the other principles a living reality. That is why the events of the last month have been so disquieting.  Enabling people to flourish in the church’s life and structures means enjoying their fellowship and experiencing their leadership. Having been a member of the CNC I know the process of selection of diocesan bishops and no-one takes it lightly.

In Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, they found a leader of proven ability, pastoral care, spiritual insight and episcopal experience. He is a man who could have been trusted to work with enthusiasm and gentle care alongside the women and men - ordained and lay - in his new diocese. He would have continued and increased the commitment to social concern in the Sheffield diocese, supported the work of the Wilson Carlile Church Army centre, and encouraged those struggling in difficult ministries. He would have put all the structures in place necessary for him to be a focus of unity. He would also have brought reassurance and energy to those traditionalists who are not flourishing, but fear they are being slowly squeezed out of the Church of England.

Philip’s appointment was thus a golden opportunity for us to keep our promise and make it a reality. It was also a chance to understand where our unity as a church lies - not in political correctness, in sameness or conformity, but in the love of Christ. It lies in a recognition of the wonderful variety and difference in the gifts God has given us, and in our mutual respect and trust. In being able to affirm the contribution of those we differ from, allowing them to flourish, even at our own expense, we begin to discover how we can be one. Father David Houlding, long-time member of Synod, and once leading Catholic opponent of women in the episcopacy, expressed it well. ‘We have to learn to trust and go on trusting no matter how much it costs….we must not lose sight of the aspiration set before us in the great chorus of the Christian hymn, One church one faith, one Lord. To that end we must continue to work.’

The appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling meted out to Philip North, a faithful brother in Christ has produced a severe set-back to this vision of the Church. It has manifested the same spirit evident in the worst aspects of our culture today – the power of ignorance and the supremacy of intolerance. We have much work to do to separate ourselves from the post-truth, sloganeering, and media-hype of our age. We are in an era of name-calling, where truth disappears within a hundred offensive epithets.

Philip North is not ‘misogynist’ ‘sexist’, or ‘bigoted’ as twitter feed describes him. Nor, as Martin Percy inelegantly suggested, does he represent ‘gender-based sectarianism’ and ‘fogeyish sacralised sexism’. He is a man of conviction and prayer called by God to be a leader in the church. His views on the different callings of women and men are not my views, and I would be happy to continue the debate with him. But that does not, and should not, disqualify him from public respect, or from taking his place alongside other leaders in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ in our country today. I am sorry he felt pressured to resign from what could have been a fruitful and forward-looking episcopacy, and regret the emotional and psychological pain he has gone through.  But I am even more sorry for the church that is so weakened by failure to keep its word.

I hope the church can learn the right things from this tragic episode, and examine its conscience about the promises we have made. May we resist the canonisation of illiberalism, the creation of new orthodoxies based on intolerance of tradition, and the tyranny of mouthing acceptable slogans. The call of the church today is, surely, to sound a prophetic note of hope to the struggles of a divided and hurting culture. It is not to sink into its mud.

11 thoughts on “Mourning our infidelity”

  1. Those who opposed Philip North’s appointment have been castigated by Elaine Storkey and others for not allowing mutual flourishing as promised under the five principles but how could women priests have flourished as priests, rather than simply as persons, under a bishop who denied they were priests. How could those women seeking to test their vocation as priests flourish in that search if their diocesan bishop rejected the possibility of that call. His position would put a damper on it at the very least, hardly conducive to their flourishing.

    I deplore name calling – but I do believe that certain stances are open to the accusation of sexism and misogyny however kind their proponent is otherwise and however well he gets on with women. My dear late grandmother was a courteous women who treated all politely and warmly including welcoming a New Guinea tribesman into her Sydney home. Yet she once said to me that she would cut me out of her will if I ever married a black man. Was my grandmother’s attitude racist ? I think it was . She was dismissing a spouse , albeit in the abstract, solely on the basis of his colour. By analogy I can understand how someone who rejects women as priests solely on the basis of their gender could be construed as sexist.

    And what about the hurt and insult felt by many women at Philip North’s consecration as Bishop of Burnley. Bishop Libby may have taken her exclusion from the laying on of hands ceremony in good grace but I was not the only woman to have felt outraged . Surely to an Anglo – Catholic it is the need for a male in the ceremony that is important-, not whether a woman was also involved. The idea that female hands or laying male hands on a female head would taint a line of succession is deeply offensive.

    I have no doubt that Philip North is the gracious, kind , talented man people say he is and I applaud his stance on poverty but his position on women priests makes his role as a diocesan bishop untenable. I only wish that he had stated that he had withdrawn from Sheffield because he had listened to the reasons why people opposed to someone of his beliefs regarding women priests being given the post rather than implying that he was hounded out,

  2. I applaud Elaine’s stance on this situation in that these recent events have brought considerable doubt as to the workability aspects of of the House of Bishops’ Declaration. I agree that Principle 1 is clear, and does not endorse two integrities, but I don’t believe her view is shared by the Traditional Catholics, represented by Forward in Faith and The Society.

    Commenting on the five guiding principles, the “Advice to Parishes” issued by Forward in Faith states:

    “The Principles affirm the legitimacy of our position within the Church of England. Though the first two principles reflect a situation that falls short of our ideal, on closer examination they are less challenging than they might appear. For a brief commentary which explains this, see Annex B to this document.”

    In a more expansive annex, the document explains further:

    “Principle 1 states what the Church of England corporately holds, not what individual members of it may or may not believe: it remains perfectly legitimate to hold a different view. However, if someone whom we cannot recognize, sacramentally speaking, as a bishop or priest holds an office such as diocesan bishop, suffragan bishop, archdeacon, rector or vicar, that office is not vacant, so it is possible in good conscience to recognize the holder of that office as holding the legal responsibilities that belong to it.

    However, this recognition does not require us to recognize him or her as a bishop or priest in the sacramental sense, or to receive his or her sacramental ministry. Canonical obedience to the holder of an office does not imply anything about the sacramental status of the office-holder. “

    Does this really sound like an acknowledgement of the first principle that anyone whom the Church of England ordains as priest or bishop is truly a member of that order, regardless of gender. ?

    Elaine suggests that Principle 2 “made it clear that those coming for ordination must accept this” (ie Principle 1). Whilst this is true, the principle actually states “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”. This is not just about ordinands, it requires that acknowledgment from all ministers, current and future.

    The published literature and statements from Forward in Faith and The Society make it clear that they do not accept the validity of a woman’s order as priest or bishop, and indeed the very raison d’etre for FiF and The Society is to provide sacramental assurance for those who continue to hold this view, as is their right under the remain guiding principles.

    I have the greatest regard for Bp Philip, not least as a champion of the church’s ministry to the poor and deprived areas of our nation. In this regard, I’m sure he will continue as a valued member of the church’s senior leadership, wherever he serves. If there were personal attacks on Bp Philip then these were un-Christian and uncalled for. However, once we set aside personalities, it seems to me that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the role of a diocesan bishop and the currently stated FiF/Society position on the ordained ministry of women.

    The diocesan bishop provides the authority and assurance to the parishes/benefices in his/her diocese, through the various appointment, institution, and licensing processes and documents , that parish clergy so appointed are properly, episcopally ordained priests (see Canon C10). How could a bishop who cannot accept the validity or a woman’s ordination then appoint her to any priestly role in the diocese. Whilst the formation of The Society predates the legal changes in Nov 2014, could I suggest that the House of Bishops collectively need to consider carefully the FiF and Society edicts which have been issued since then, to take a view on whether they are fully compatible with the five guiding principles as the House and Synod intended, and then perhaps
    review whether a member of the Council of Bishops of The Society, who have issued those edicts, could ever hold a diocesan see with integrity.

  3. Excellent piece Elaine – I know we disagreed on women bishops, but as one of the Conservative Evangelicals who abstained in 2014 as I trusted the Bishops, that trust is now destroyed. Where were the Bishops speaking out for Philip, supporting him and their promises.
    Given the recent vote in synod on the Bishops report where women clergy voted 4:1 not to take note, the backlash is probably now unstoppable.

  4. ‘The appalling hounding, vilification and name-calling meted out to Philip North’ is a very sweeping statement and it is not the first time this has been made. Please can you quote the offensive communication and name the authors. I would be very interested to know if any of them came from the people who organised the ‘official’ campaign which focussed on the aberrations in the process of selecting Philip North and not were not making any personal accusations.

    Yes, there have been a lot of unpleasant and un-Christian comments about this whole sorry affair but this is the nature of modern social media, it is the noise of the crowd and not that of those who had rightful objections to an unsuitable appointment. When those in the hierarchy answer the question “how will it work” then we could start to have a rational debate.

  5. While I agree with much of what Elaine says, I do not think it is helpful or fruitful to name call in her turn those people who have expressed serious and thoughtful reservations about Philip North’s nomination. As I have said elsewhere, there was a failure of leadership in handling the difficulties of this nomination. Had something like Adrian Benet’s excellent alternative scenario been put in place, this nomination might well have been very successful. I am staggered that our Bishops did not anticipate what the reaction to Philip North’s nomination might be. This is a sad situation all round.

  6. Forgive me for coming back but I just wanted to endorse the thoughtful and insightful remarks of Messrs Beney and Smith.

    Elaine, you are close to the church’s centre. Most of us are not. What may be obvious to you is not necessarily to those outside that privileged place. The bishops seem to be to be excellent people but who are too close to each other in their ‘high level holy huddle’ (forgive the colloquial description) and can be rather out of touch with the realities of the (secular) world of 2017. Hence sadly the church loses traction, even with its own members, never mind society more widely.

    There is naturally a gap between synod and pew or vicarage. The church’s leaders need to do more to bridge that – and a lot more ‘ground work’ was needed on Mr North’s appointment, to see if it could work or not. Therefore it’s not good at all to describe people who make the church work on the ground, day by day, as ‘intolerant’, ‘iliberal’ etc.

  7. While like you I would decry twitter posts that label a man of God such as Philip North as ‘misogynist’ ‘sexist’, or ‘bigoted’ – I think this article misrepresents and does not do justice to, the thoughtful, respectful representation made by women priests and their supportive male colleagues in the diocese of Sheffield during the process of consultation, which recognized Philips gifts, respected his rights to flourish, but none-the-less were concerned, that the appointment might not be the best match for the needs of the Diocese.

    I am sure, and at least sincerely hope, that Philip’s withdrawal was not an act of surrender to the twitter bullies and internet trolls, but was, as I suspect, a considered and prayerful decision made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for the good of the Church

    I hope to that the church can now consider carefully where Philips considerable gifts can best be used…

    But I hope that you won’t make the mistake of confusing the dedicated female clergy of Sheffield Diocese with twitter bullies and internet trolls which are a recurring and unfortunate feature of modern life

    • “the appointment might not be the best match for the needs of the Diocese” why not come out and say what you mean rather than hiding behind phrases which are meaningless.

  8. I wrote this elsewhere, on Facebook. I hope you won’t mind me repeating it here. Elaine, I agree with your words. But I am not sure the C of E, institutionally, has worked out how to cascade out from the Synod bubble the hard work of living out mutual flourishing into diocese and parishes. Here’s what I wrote about that.

    Being married to a priest who is female I could understand the pain of those who were not coping with the idea of Philip North’s appointment in sheffield. But I do think there is stuff which, by grace, could have been done to make this work. But many things which could have been done were not done.

    Let us suppose that it had worked out like this instead:

    The CNC decided Philip North was their preferred candidate. At this point, given Sheffield’s own admission in its diocesan statement of previous difficulties surrounding the ordination of women, the Archbishops and their appointments secretary, together with the GS members of the CNC, at least some of whom had had the benefit of all the collaborative work which had led to women being ordained as bishops, got together with the diocesan reps to say “how are we going to make this work?”

    And one or two of the CNC members who had not been part of the mediation work in the previous synod said “the thing is, this mutual flourishing thing looks like really hard work, how did you do it?” And those that were there said “it needs people consciously to behave like adults all the time, to acknowledge their own pain and that of others, but not let it push them into the child / victim role. And it needs those with power not to go into parent / persecutor mode but to say ‘yes it’s hard, but I will show you how to come with me into making this work'”

    And then, before the public announcement, the facilitators who worked with the 2010 – 2015 synod were asked to meet with the CNC and Philip to make a plan as to how to midwife this potentially difficult situation into one of real mutual flourishing.

    Then, as the announcement is made, as well as Philip meeting with the female clergy in Sheffield, there were a concerted series of meetings and events to which all clergy and other licensed ministers would have been invited to explore the emotion bound up in the enormous difficulty of having a diocesan who would not ordain women. No-one’s emotion or pain was ruled too much or out-of-order except if it became personal about another human being. At first people were asked explicitly not to try to persuade anyone of anyone else’s view, but simply to acknowledge their own pain and fears, and then to begin to acknowledge other people’s too. (I spoke to one of the mediators between the two votes in Synod – and they said to me that hearing the pain was enormously important – you can’t simply pretend, or order it away.)

    As these meetings took place, people began to understand the possibility of living together despite apparently irreconcilable difference. That some of their fears really could be addressed, and that there might be ways of working where people felt valued. And to glimpse that perhaps the witness to the transforming power of Christ in “mutual flourishing” was a prize worth the pain. And there may have been tears of joy at Philip’s enthronement in the cathedral in Sheffield.

    That’s the end of my alternative scenario. For this to have happened it would have taken leadership at the highest level in the appointments process to have taken responsibility for ensuring that mutual flourishing was not just a decision of synod, and a direction from the “top” of the Church of England, but something which was sown and midwifed and nursed in the Sheffield diocese from long before Philip’s arrival.

    My point is that wars are relatively easy to win; it’s the peace that’s hard to build. And I am very sorry to say that, unless there was a bunch of work behind the scenes in Sheffield that no-one has spoken about, it doesn’t look like enough effort was made to win the peace.

    The little secular fundraising partnership of 20 or so people that I work for is going through a process of working out an appropriate way of paying and organising ourselves. We are firm friends and respect each other enormously. We have not been at war with each other. But we’ve brought in facilitators to help us because we know that human nature and the voices of the louder or more hurt or more persuasive or more fearful can result in outcomes that none of us wants.

    I wish so much that the joy of the Synod vote in 2014 had been followed by serious work and investment in understanding mutual flourishing in areas of the Church of England where it was needed. Personally, I would be very sceptical about moving to a diocese where the diocesan does not ordain women (and have the joy of being in a diocesa where we pray each week for Bishop Rachel) but then no-one has worked with me to understand how it might work if we had a a bishop who didn’t believe my wife was actually a priest. But I haven’t needed that. It seems that Sheffield did need it, and didn’t get it.

  9. Thanks Elaine for this evidently heartfelt reflection.

    However, I’m not sure it’s fair or helpful to align those who are very concerned about the appointment of a Diocesan Bishop in 2017 who doesn’t accept women priests, with ‘hounding, vilification and name-calling’ not to mention ‘the worst aspects of our culture today – the power of ignorance and the supremacy of intolerance.’

    Dear me. That’s not fair or reasonable language to use. It’s discourteous and certainly inaccurate. It also probably helps keep the church far removed from the society of 2017 and being able to talk to and serve that society.

    Meanwhile, Mr North is a Bishop of the Church of England – but not Diocesan it’s true. Hopefully he can continue to be effective in that role. So please do keep perspective here.

    All the very best.

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