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.