For those of you inside or near the Church of England bubble, you’ll have been aware of some media furore over the last week about the incoming bishop of Sheffield, +Philip North.
In brief: Colin Podmore of the Society of St Wilfrid and Hilda (a conservative doesn’t-approve-of-women-priests society) has lamented (in laypeople’s terms), “How do we know who’s an acceptable priest now that WOMEN BISHOPS are a thing? These priests might have been ordained by a woman, or have been ordained by a bishops who has ordained women — therefore the are not ‘real priests’ and we ‘cannot accept’ their ministry. Perhaps we should have some kind of identification system so we know who’s OK and who’s not.”
In response to this, Martyn Percy, a priest and currently the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, has called for +Philip North, who helps to lead the Society of S Wilfrid and Hilda (hereafter, SSWSH) to either radically distance himself from this group, or to not take up his post as Bishop of Sheffield.
Much opinionating has followed. As always.
The Church of England currently recognises 5 ‘Guiding Principles’ regarding this ongoing conflict between traditionalists and progressives, which point to a goal of ‘mutual flourishing’ for all. At their heart these principles are about inclusion and tolerance — not values, notably, that all in the CofE prioritise highly (especially not those opposed to women priests). In the course of this debate, a Twitter hashtag has sprung up in support of +Philip’s appointment to Sheffield: #reaffirm5. The argument there is that there church will never not be diverse and will always require the laying aside of differences for the sake of the kingdom; that Philip’s work especially promoting the causes of the least privileged make him a great bishop and a focus of unity, even though he doesn’t believe that 1/3 of the clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield are ‘really’ priests, because of their sex.
I have stayed fairly quiet during this debate, partially because hey, there’s a passel of fascists running the USA and so I’ve been preoccupied with that more than church politics. But also because, deep inside, I’ve never been certain that the 5 guiding principles can mean anything of value to anyone outside the church: the very people whom the church (should be) seeking to serve, love, and point Christward.
‘Mutual flourishing’, as Percy points out, cannot really be ‘mutual’ if one side is still denied full humanity before God. I do not doubt that +Philip has much compassion for those experiencing poverty, for the north of the the UK, and that he is a wise person who, many tell me, is a good, pastoral overseer. However, he is also a key player in the SSWSH which does two harmful things. Firstly, it believes that women cannot exercise priestly or episcopal (or in some extreme cases, diaconal) ministry, therefore denying the ultimate equality of women and men before God. Secondly, it promotes a system of ‘alternative episcopal oversight’ whereby those who do not agree with their local bishop can seek a bishop they do agree with, usually over the issue of women’s ordination. This, which a few of my colleagues refer to as ‘Tesco bishop-ing’ (in that you go to the bishops and just pick one off the shelf you like the best), undermines the collegial and ecclesiological fabric of English Anglicanism, furthering sectarianism of many kinds. So this ‘mutual flourishing’ at its heart is actually about preserving a corner of the church where it’s OK to reject women’s ministry, on either traditional or biblical grounds.
The leaders of the SSWSH have condemned a theology of ‘taint’ whereby their members refuse to be ordained by a female bishop, a male bishop that has ordained women, or where members might refuse to concelebrate with male priests who’ve worked with women or concelebrated with women, trained female curates, ever dressed in drag, etc. The reality is, however, that such a theology is alive and well amongst traditionalists on the catholic and evangelical ends of the Anglican spectrum, whether it is acknowledged or not. (If I may be permitted the innuendo: a taint by any other name would smell as sour.)
Of course the great beauty of Anglicanism is its breadth and, in theory at least, its lack of a ‘thought police’ (though it sometimes seems to be moving in this policed direction). People and priests are free to have their private beliefs so long as they show up, worship God the Holy Trinity, engage with the historic creeds and the 39 articles, and worship using the approved forms of the Church of England.
Naturally, this freedom means that sometimes people are going to pick up a bible or a bit of the historical church doctrine and see ‘Women are subhuman, women should be silent, I do not permit a woman to teach,’ etc., and decide to take these things uncritically. The bible is a beautiful, inspired book, but it was penned (mostly) by men in a thoroughly patriarchal society which didn’t have a lot of time for women. It’s a patriarchally-infused, often outright sexist, book. As are many of the writings of the church fathers, from which the earliest notions of priesthood in the western and eastern churches were drawn and developed in later centuries.
I write ‘decide to take these things uncritically’ because that is what a rejection of women’s full humanity, women’s ordination to all holy orders, is: a decision. It is not a moment of submission to a text (though it might be couched as such); nor is it a moment of seeing through to the ‘true textual meaning’. It is a decision to privilege the patriarchal content of the text as the full content of the text, rather than engaging with the text as a living document reflecting both the culture in which it was produced, and the cultures (still quite patriarchal) in which it is today read.
Naturally, as a woman in holy orders my approach to the text and the tradition are different.
And yet, I do thoroughly value a church where people are allowed to differ in opinion, allowed to doubt and challenge and change. In my life I have been a person who wasn’t OK with women’s leadership in church, much less women’s ordination; I have been someone who used the bible to excuse my own homophobia; I have been someone who could not see the grace of God for the legalism in which I bound myself. And yet, I found churches that let me exist there, let me encounter a God of grace and love who broke me — slowly, painfully — out of these places, and many others.
So, do I think there’s a place in the church for people who refuse to accept the sacramental ministry and leadership of women? Yes. Because I was once one of them.
However, do I think the Church of England should be ringfencing un-collegial, ecclesiologically unsound, sexist and donatist arrangements with the 5 guiding principles? I admit, I do not. I currently affirm them because my church — the one who trained, ordained, and supports me — requires me to affirm them, to respect my brothers and sisters who differ from me in their views. But I think this is an insufficient solution, one that is promoted by the SSWSH whose agendas and practices I find quite shocking. The SSWSH uses the language of ‘ministry we can receive with confidence.’ They reject the notion of will, of choosing to receive women’s ministry, instead suggesting that ‘there they stand, they can do no other.’ (An interesting sentiment from an often highly Reformation-skeptic group.) I myself am highly suspicious of this passive language, as it removes the agency from the members and seeks to put it elsewhere — the church? Christ? The Godhead? Who knows. It is a triumph of the passive in English language and culture. But, as those who study grammar know, the passive does not connote inaction, or lack of will on the part of a subject. It simply is a linguistic convention designed to speak around something, for the comfort of the speaker, the listeners, the whole society. The language of ‘cannot receive’ is just an encoded language of ‘will not receive’; such resistance to the teaching of one’s church used to be called heresy, apostasy, or at the very least, canonical disobedience. These days it is given special protection.
If +Philip North cannot distance himself from this group which promotes this unjust canonical disobedience and seeks special protection for it, I have trouble seeing how any flourishing for women and men he can (or will) promote would be truly ‘mutual’. And what’s more important, I don’t know how the church of England, if it promotes sexism (even in God’s name), can speak with integrity to people and societies worldwide that are slowly but surely coming to recognise the full humanity of women as a lynchpin for human justice.
note: Until very recently my own diocesan bishop has been +Richard Chartres, who took a similar line to +Philip: he was a diocesan bishop who would ordain women deacon but not priest, and he would never concelebrate with anyone, to avoid that debate altogether. Luckily I’ve had a brilliant suffragan bishop who is totally supportive of my ministry, but I would be lying if I did not say that the Bishop of London’s refusal to make women priests did not (a) hurt personally and (b) exacerbate unhelpful and sexist politics in the diocese.