I don’t usually get into church politics on here. I prefer to stick to the real thing. While we in the church are arguing with each other, we are not building the kingdom. We are not being salt and light, or good news, or transforming lives, communities or the world we live in.
But here in Sheffield there is a church political storm going on all around me, and I (inspired by a friend at Synod last week) don’t think I can be silent any longer.
I am deeply conflicted by the appointment of Philip North to be Bishop of Sheffield. I haven’t yet met him, but from his acceptance speech, he seems to be a lovely man, full of grace and with a passion for justice. He brings a vision for the poor and the left behind on ‘outer estates’ and those who have worked with him say nothing but good things. His gifts and his vision will be a great fit for this Diocese, which includes not just Sheffield, but also Rotherham, Doncaster and the surrounding countryside out to Goole.
But all this comes attached to a man whose theological conviction means he cannot ordain women as priests or bishops. I cannot pretend to understand this position. The way I see it, we were all created in the image of God – there is something of the divine creator in every human. And when we were lifted out of the mess humans created for themselves by Jesus’s sacrifice once and for all, we were all redeemed and made one in Christ. For there is no longer any male or female.
It is taking the world and the church a long time to catch up with this Biblical principle, but we are slowly moving towards justice and equality. It seems to me (and this is just my interpretation) that justice and equality is at the heart of Bishop Philip’s ministry and his concern that we need to listen to the voices of the poor. And now I really come into conflict, because gender inequality lies at the heart of social and economic inequality. Women are paid, on average, 19.2% less than men. Women make up a higher proportion than men of those living in poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that Three-quarters of single parent households live below the minimum income standard, 90% of which are headed up by women. And recent changes to the benefits and tax system, in the name of austerity, have been unfairly shouldered by women, who have taken 85% of the hit.
A vision for equality cannot be separated from a vision for men and women’s equality. I’m very interested to know how Bishop Philip brings these two things together. Because however it is dressed up in theological conviction, saying that women can’t take on certain roles in the church is not equality.
So I’m waiting. Waiting for Bishop Philip to bring his gifts, wondering how it will play out for us here in Sheffield Diocese. I’m not here asking Bishop Philip to withdraw because the church has decided this is how it’s going to be. Not just the specific selection process that chose Bishop Philip, which has its flaws, but we have to trust God was there in that process. But the wider decision made by the whole church in 2014 when provision for making women bishops was agreed.
The situation is not as people outside the church see it. The Sheffield Telegraph ran a double page spread asking if women should be ordained priests or bishops. It is a very great shame if people think we are still debating this question. We’re not. The Church of England has decided that women should be ordained as priests and bishops. This is no longer in question. It reflects badly on the church that people think it is.
The conflict we find ourselves in now is due to the choices made in July 2014 about how to move forward with respect to those who don’t agree with the decision that women should be priests and bishops. There are five guiding principles, but broadly I will split them into two.
Firstly, anyone who ministers in the Church of England has to accept this decision and uphold and respect everyone with the office of priest or bishop regardless of gender. Bishop Philip has made it pretty clear that he does this and will continue to do so.
But secondly, if your theological conviction means you are working with this even though you don’t agree, you can still be part of the Anglican family. This is not least in part because large sections of the Anglican communion haven’t reached the decision we have made in England, but we still want to remain in communion with them. If we’re going to extend this courtesy to ministers in the church round the world, then we’re surely going to extend it to ministers in the church in England. This isn’t just about ‘tolerating’ people with different views, but ensuring that everyone’s needs are met and that we can all flourish. And all orders of ministry are open to all equally.
These are the decisions that we made as a church at General Synod in July 2014. Perhaps we didn’t think through the consequences then (the current furore suggests we didn’t) but the inevitable outworking of them is that men can and will be appointed as bishops who hold a theological view that doesn’t include women priests or bishops. They will have to work with and uphold the ministry of the women that they work with, respect their office and support their vocation. And those with a different point of view will have to extend the same in return.
So, if we don’t like it, we will have to go back to that decision which paved the way for women to become bishops in the first place. If we undid that decision (I don’t even know if it’s possible as I know nothing about church law) then would the whole provision for women to become bishops be unravelled? Or if we make a new decision and decide that other theological points of view cannot be held within the Church of England, are we prepared to leave behind those in our midst and those around the world who will not follow?
Bishop Philip’s appointment is part of our decision to live together. We like to talk about disagreeing well, and being a model for how to do so for others, so let’s try that for a change. If we don’t like the decision we’ve made to live together, then we need to move the debate way beyond women’s ministry to the unity of the whole Anglican community and the worldwide church. If you think that, as an issue of justice, we need to go there, then you need to say so.