Church of England

Bishop of Sheffield: Martyn Percy asked for bread; Sentamu and Welby give a stone

No doubt there has been a lot of frantic to-ing and fro-ing between the palaces of Bishopthorpe and Lambeth since Philip North felt unable to take up the nomination as Bishop of Sheffield. People have been waiting expectantly for a robust archiepiscopal response to those who hounded him out, and a persuasive theological defence of the continuing appointment of traditionalist bishops to Anglican sees, especially in those where a significant number of clergy are female. But the matter of Philip North is a matter for ‘up north’: Sheffield is under the jurisdiction of Archbishop John Sentamu in the ecclesiastical province of York; it is not for the Archbishop of Canterbury to wade in precipitately, however passionately he might feel about a matter. Even as principal leader of the Church of England, if Justin Welby wants to say something about Philip North or anything else ‘up north’, then protocol and courtesy demand diplomatic coordination so that any statement may be jointly issued to ensure metropolitan unity. We can’t have Canterbury at loggerheads with York (at least not publicly).

It has been a while in coming, but the Archbishops have now issued their joint statement:

The recent events surrounding the nomination of Bishop Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield, including his withdrawal from the process, have understandably raised great concern amongst many in the Church of England. The status of the House of Bishops Declaration of June 2014 has been questioned by some and its meaning has also been challenged.

We have therefore written to Sir Philip Mawer, the Independent Reviewer under the Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, (Resolution of Disputes Procedure Regulations) 2014, to address the concerns that have arisen in the Church following these recent events. We attach our letter to Sir Philip, in which we reaffirm clearly our commitment, and the commitment of the House of Bishops, to its Declaration, to the principles contained in it, and to the overriding principle of mutual flourishing.

Finally, in this period of Lent, as part of our preparation for the glorious celebration of the extraordinary grace of God in the events of Holy Week and Easter, we call on all those in the Church to pray openly for the flourishing of those with whom they disagree, to demonstrate the mutual love which we are called to share and to proclaim confidently in word and deed that in Christ we find our true identities, and the overcoming of those things which in ourselves we find so divisive.

So their response has been to pass the buck.

Some might say sidestep, cop out or fence-sit.

Sir Philip Mawar may be an eminent, learned and highly capable civil servant. Certainly, his CV evidences considerable experience and integrity: he was, by all accounts, an impeccable Secretary General of the General Synod (during the period which legislated for the ordination of women), and an exemplary Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. But why, when the Church of England badly needs an injection of commanding public theology and authoritative leadership, have its two most senior bishops instigated a political review?

In his laser-like objection to the appointment of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield, Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, asked for theological integrity. How may a bishop, who is also a member and co-leader of The Society which refutes the ordination of women, commit publicly to the flourishing of women in sacerdotal ministry? “What does Bishop Philip think is happening at the altar, when a woman is presiding at the Eucharist,” he asked. You may object to to some of his turns of phrase (“sacrilised sexism” and “gender-based sectarianism” were distinctly unhelpful, to say the least), but his request for clarity was not unreasonable. Yet instead of robust ecclesial apologia and theological reason, his article elicited an awful lot of unreasonable personal attacks on Bishop Philip (and, indeed, back upon Dean Percy himself). Ad hom invariably constitutes a failure of argument or the total absence of philosophy.

The theology of patriarchal Church leadership is straightforward and well-known, not least because it has endured for 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy. The problem is that Church of England bishops (even members of The Society) are embarrassed about making it for fear of being called ‘misogynist’, ‘bigot’ or ‘sexist’. In short, Christ is the Son of God; God became man. He revealed to us God as Father. The Son of God chose 12 male apostles to establish and lead the Church. St Paul’s egalitarian declaration, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus‘ (Gal 3:28) is a statement of soteriological universality, not a repudiation of sacerdotal masculinity. The role of women and men in Christian ministry is as different and distinct as it is in nature (cf 1Cor 14:34f). Women may be led by the Holy Spirit to pray and prophesy (vv.1-25), but they may not teach and have authority over men (1Tim 2:12). There may be equality of parity and esteem before God, but a woman may no more be a priest than a man may be a mother. She may be a deacon (Rom 16:1 cf Phil 1:1) or a co-worker and full participant in ministry (Rom 16:3f cf Acts 18:18-28), but Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis and Junia were not priests, though they were undoubtedly ‘of note among the apostles‘ (Rom 16:7).

Whether or not you agree that women’s ministry may not include preaching and presiding over the Eucharist, the Early Church is replete with examples of significant women’s ministry. There may be sex equality in Christ, but sex distinctions exist in nature, and gender distinctions persist in the world. Scholars differ in their expositions of reasons and extents, and there are tensions in all beliefs concerning the role of women in Church leadership. But all would agree to living in relations of loving mutuality, hence the Church of England’s commitment to mutual flourishing.   

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?‘ (Mt 7:9).

Theology is bread, and that is what Martyn Percy asked for. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have given him a stone of bureaucratic review, which will doubtless just succinctly summarise everything we already know, and, for clarity, reiterate the Five Guiding Principles (placing a few key words in bold type). There might need to be some disclosure of the confidential musings of the Crown Nominations Commission, but nothing that won’t already have been surmised – namely that the representatives of the Diocese of Sheffield did not specifically request a bishop who believed in the ordination of women, and so they did not specifically bar Philip North. It is important to note that no one gets onto the “more and more influential” Caroline Boddington’s list of approved candidates to the episcopate – either the CNC longlist or the shortlist invited for interview – without Justin Welby and John Sentamu knowing about it (and so approving them). The Archbishops clearly didn’t see a fundamental problem of polity in the appointment of Philip North to Sheffield, or he would never have been considered in the first place.

Archbishops are supposed to do theology and lead, not manage ecclesial conflict by pussyfooting around and outsourcing the way forward. The cause of the dissent is already known to anyone with a modicum of discernment: the Five Guiding Principles incorporate the nullification of Philip North’s (and The Society’s) theology of Church leadership. Yes, it really is that straightforward. Consider the first principle:

Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience.

Note the phrase “true and lawful”: this is not merely a matter of parliamentary statute, but also of ecclesio-theological truth. Philip North (along with the rest of The Society) has no problem with ‘lawful’, but robustly refutes a crucial dimension of ‘true’. The stated aim of The Society is: “to promote and maintain catholic teaching and practice within the Church of England”; and “to provide episcopal oversight to which churches, institutions and individuals will freely submit themselves to guarantee a ministry in the historic apostolic succession in which they can have confidence”. How may this be reconciled to the first principle? Well, it can’t. If a diocesan bishop can have no confidence in the women clergy he leads, believing, as members of The Society do, that women priests and bishops are inconsistent with the apostolic tradition, in what sense can Philip North assent to the whole of the first principle without obfuscating the meaning of ‘true’? Whether his objections are ontological (that women are incapable of receiving ordination), or ecclesiological (that the decision to ordain women cannot be taken by the Church of England in isolation), his theology of leadership refutes the ‘true’ validity of their ministry.

And so Martyn Percy (who is, we must remember, married to Emma Percy, who is Chairwoman of WATCH – “a national organisation working actively for gender justice, equality and inclusion in the Church of England”), asked a simple question: “Should anyone accept a nomination to be a diocesan bishop, when this same person cannot recognise and affirm the sacramental validity of a significant percentage of their own clergy who would be in their care, and with whom they will have to share in the ‘cure of souls’.” He omits the question mark, so it becomes a statement which he hammers home: “I think the answer to this must be ‘no’, and unequivocally so. Any position of integrity would refuse such an invitation and nomination.”

Ergo, if Philip North did not refuse the nomination to become Bishop of Sheffield, he lacked integrity. That’s pretty damning coming from the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. But it simply highlights the theological tensions and internal contradictions of the Five Guiding Principles: wonderful in theory, but in practice the succeeding four collapse beneath the sheer weight and full force of the first. They may gush about the need to respect theological conviction and exhort mutual flourishing, but a woman priest who must respect the theological conviction of her bishop, who himself believes her orders may be lawful but are certainly not true, is forced to respect the nullification of her ordination and the voiding of her vocation. Where is the integrity and mutual flourishing in that?

It may work in Chichester, where traditionalist (and member of The Society) the Rt Rev’d Dr Martin Warner is bishop, but Martyn Percy would argue that Chichester is not the same as Sheffield, which he describes as “a go-ahead, vibrant, progressive city, with cutting-edge universities and research-led industries”. Apparently, a third of its Anglican clergy are women, and so it is “thoroughly modern”. It isn’t clear the extent to which Percy is berating Chichester or its university (‘regressive’, ‘stuffy’, ‘conservative’, ‘thoroughly medieval’?), but Chichester does indeed have women priests. Percy refers to Sheffield’s third as constituting a “significant percentage”, and so the CNC really ought to have nominated a bishop who advocated and believed in ordination equality. But what is the threshold of significance? Why does Percy set it at a third? What about an quarter or an eighth? Surely if only one woman is subjected to “sacrilised sexism” or “gender-based sectarianism”, it is an injustice too far?

It isn’t clear why the Archbishops of Canterbury and York need an ‘Independent Reviewer’ (note upper-case) to tell us any of this. Is there anything in their letter to Sir Philip Mawar which the Archbishops could not (and should not) do themselves? Are not the answers to the Archbishops’ questions really rather straightforward?

a) What has been done in the Church, including in the Diocese of Sheffield, to inform and educate clergy about the settlement agreed in 2014, and the effect of the Declaration within that settlement;

Much has been done, but more can always be done.

b) the process leading to the nomination of Bishop Philip North to the See of Sheffield;

The process was all in order, but if the Diocese of Sheffield specifically desired a bishop who believed in the lawful and true ordination of women, its representatives should have made that explicit and dug their heals in.

c) the consistency of that nomination with the Declaration;

The nomination was wholly consistent with the Declaration.

d) the reactions to that nomination in the Church and beyond;

Um.. Google.

e) the response of the institutional Church to the nomination and to the reactions to it.

Well, here Sir Philip will be supremely diplomatic. He will doubtless praise the Archbishop of York’s reassuring statements to the media, and reiterate that the Archbishop of Canterbury was limited pastorally in his powers of jurisdiction: he does not possess those convenient pre-Refomation levers of power to appoint and sack bishops. But what Sir Philip will not do is criticise either Archbishop for failing to respond to Martyn Percy publicly, robustly and theologically. That isn’t the way the Church of England does things any more. And by delegating this matter to an “Independent Reviewer”, they are absolved from taking sides, and may thereby sustain a via media for mutual flourishing, which is, in truth, a manifest mutual exclusion: never again can the CNC nominate a member of The Society to be a diocesan bishop unless the General Synod determines to amend the Five Guiding Principles. And that, quite simply, is not going to happen.