So there has been a bit of a ding dong about the nomination of Bishop Philip North as the next Diocesan Bishop of Sheffield. I waded into it a little unwittingly yesterday after reading a blog post from Rev Sue Walmersley, (below) a priest in the Diocese of Sheffield,
What I said caused offense to traditionalists. This was not my intention, but I did speak without enough forethought, prayer or research. So I spent a lot of time last night pondering and reading on the issue and I have come to a different conclusion. (I didn’t change my mind because some people were offended – sadly that is somewhat inevitable when discussing such sensitive subjects – but because I hadn’t given enough thought to the agreement that had previously been reached.)
Here is the article below by Martyn Percy, Dean of Oxford. He asks some interesting and seemingly logical questions. He also suggests that Philip North renounce his membership of The Society, a group for traditionalists who have not had any contact with the ministry of women. This is exactly what I suggested yesterday as a possible solution to the issue, which caused great offence.
However here is a critique on the Percy article, which is more nuanced.
Below is the 5 Guiding Principles which were agreed in the wake of the collapse of the first attempt by the CofE to pass legislation to allow women to be Bishops.
So, I guess what I have come to see is that we are in a church that allows Philip North to hold his position on the ministry of women, alongside his fellow Society members, AND at the same time did not take this as the majority view, but decided to ordain (consecrate / install / translate etc) women as Bishops. The church, via Synod, decided to continue to the logical conclusion of recognising and welcoming the ministry of women, and to allow space for people who could not accept that, to live together alongside one another. These are difficult and paradoxical issues for us to live with at times, but they offer grace to all of us. I am a woman priest, almost divorced. It would be unthinkable even up until a generation ago that I could minister. And now I minister in Diocese that has the first women Diocesan Bishop. I am the recipient of grace. And also, some might say, of justice after a long battle.
The issue at the heart of this for me is how will “mutual flourishing” take place in the Diocese of Sheffield, under a Diocesan Bishop who is unable to affirm the ministry of a large number of his clergy? Martyn Percy, and I, had suggested Philip North give up his membership of The Society. I have changed my view on this for two reasons. One, that it will of course not mean he has changed his views, and so is a pointless and token gesture. Second, that the church has affirmed him space to choose those views. The reason is it seen as being difficult by many women clergy is that their main senior Bishop cannot recognise their priesthood. It is no good trying to press Philip North to publicly declare or rescind what we already know his views to be about the ordination of women. But the Church of England as a whole does not share those views – we are allowed to minister! It will not be taken from us. Regardless of the views of a small minority, who are also bound to the notion of mutual flourishing.
So the real question I think is what will the Diocese of Sheffield do, in practical terms, to ensure that the ministry/priesthood of women is still acknowledged fully by the senior leadership team of the Diocese? If mutual flourishing is to be real, and have teeth, how will Philip North make appointments in his team to ensure that the flourishing of women clergy is very clearly seen to be taken seriously, even if he himself cannot personally take part in that? This is the only way mutual flourishing can be a real proposition. Given that the focus of unity and gathering is found around the Bishop of a Diocese, how can that be clearly and intentionally facilitated? A Diocesan Bishop cannot revolve their ministry around any single issue, no matter how strongly held or allowed. They are first and foremost a Bishop of the church of Christ, a ministry which welcomes and gathers everyone in. In the same way as none of the women bishops who have been appointed have become known for raging feminism and bias towards their women clergy but have ministered to all.
I think the struggle for women in the church was very real for a very long time, and the time we have had to forget that has not been very long. And of course we still have to deal with personal opposition at times even now. But our position is assured, and our ministry is well embedded and at least is on the way to becoming equal. (I know this may seem a bold statement for some who have suffered, and also see the small number of women bishops and senior appointments.) Perhaps we can be more aware of our tenure and know there will be no return to the old ways, and live out the identity of our priesthood boldly. Let’s flourish! This is hard at times to hang onto, but as Rowan Williams says in Silence and Honey Cakes “our life and death is with our neighbour.” Our flourishing is intertwined with the flourishing of others and so can we, from a place of grace, begin to allow grace to others, even those who might refuse to acknowledge us?