Church of England

Those who attacked +Philip North have made same-sex blessing compromise impossible

Remember that “radical new Christian inclusion” Justin Welby spoke of in the wake of Synod’s decision not to ‘take note’ of the Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relations? Well, you can forget it. There can now be no radically inclusive formula of words, no guiding principles, no memorandum of agreement or synodical ‘fudge’ by which those Anglicans who oppose the creation of some sort of liturgical same-sex blessing (proto-marriage), and those who advocate it as a fundamental equality or Christian social justice, can coexist in the Church of England. The hounding of Philip North from the Bishopric of Sheffield has put paid to all carefully-crafted yarns of mutual flourishing and rose-tinted via-media tolerance: mob rule has supplanted synodical governance; bullying and hounding have usurped reason, vocation and love.

“If, as Christians, we cannot relate to each other within the bounds of love, how can we possibly presume to transform a nation in the name of Christ?” Bishop Philip pleaded in his statement of withdrawal. “The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear,” he explained with great sorrow. Yes, indeed. The more one is called a ‘bigot’, ‘hater’ or ‘misogynist’, or accused of advocating “sacrilised sexism“, the more one might be inclined to curtain one’s head in the incense. To assail a flawed theology is one thing, but to attack a man for his deeply-held orthodox beliefs is not only ungracious, it is contemptible, wicked and fundamentally un-Christian.

“Philip North would have excelled among the diocesans in defending the poor & the parish, & promoting evangelism outside evangelical mould,” tweeted Cambridge theologian, the Rev’d Dr Andrew Davison. All that remains is the conditional perfect; a hypothetical event. Henceforth the intolerant inclusivist Test Act will be applied ‘robustly’ to candidates for episcopacy. Those who do not conform to the new inclusion dogma will be hounded out of office and hauled to the stake for incineration. The Church of England has hewn its sturdy catholic branch so that the ever-sprouting twigs of liberal reform might flourish. Mutuality has become a beatific pipe dream.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’ (Rom 8:28).

Applying Martyn Percy’s impeccable theological logic to the much-heralded “radical new Christian inclusion” (which many inferred, not unreasonably, to signal moves toward the incorporation of a liturgy for same-sex blessing), how can a bishop who believes such a union to be contrary to natural law or the laws of God (or, indeed, simply sinful) possibly exercise plausible authority over priests who perform such public blessings with faithful conviction? We are concerned, as Professor Percy reasonably advances, with questions of ambiguity and integrity, and the imperatives of sincerity and truth. “There is a problem, then, for any church that wants to talk about ‘two integrities’ co-existing within its life – especially when they are opposed to one another,” he attests. To adopt and adapt his precise argument further:

A concern for order and unity in the church is undoubtedly what drives many opposing the blessing of same-sex unions. But a concern for order and unity in all creation – no less Godly – is as vital for our church and world. The church lives constantly in the tension between the glacial patience of catholicity, and that of proactive, faithful reform. On the one hand, it is bound to remain true to its given nature. On the other hand, it is bound to reform and change in each generation, as the Holy Spirit renews the church.

The question of integrity then, is this. Should anyone accept a nomination to be a diocesan bishop (or can anyone continue to be a diocesan bishop) when this same person cannot recognise and affirm the sacramental validity of a liturgy of same-sex blessing performed by (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’. I think the answer to this must be ‘no’, and unequivocally so. Any position of integrity would refuse such an invitation and nomination (or continuing).

Since we are concerned not only with nominated bishops but also with existing ones, they must either all conform to the “radical new Christian inclusion” or resign. It will basically come down to a bishop’s unwillingness or inability to recognise the sacramental validity of a union which Synod has decided to affirm. Applying Martyn Percy’s Lenten reflection to an imagined episcopal opposition to same-sex blessing:

He abstains from recognising and affirming their full and equal sacramental union, (NB: but not lawful, for no one doubts the state’s authority to legislate in this area). He abstains from clarifying his views on what happens when a priest celebrates a service of same-sex blessing in London or Manchester – or in any parish of any Diocese. He abstains from recognising the sacramental efficacy of couples married by inclusive priests. He abstains from full participation in any service of Holy Matrimony, unless they are heterosexual affairs, and the sacramental ‘integrity’ of the event is guaranteed.

We could go further, and acknowledge the anxiety and distress; the grief, shock and anger that would undoubtedly be felt by same-sex couples whose blessings of union were repudiated by the bishop who oversees the priest who performed it. What integrity of witness can the Church of England have when one integrity cannot recognise the other integrity that affirms same-sex unions?

In light of Philip North’s sad fate, there can now be no credible synodical guiding principles for mutual flourishing which will inspire confidence in those who oppose any move toward a liturgy of same-sex blessing. Any decision to a “maximum freedom” to become “fully and unequivocally committed” to making services of commitment open equally to all, without reference to gender, will founder on the rock of intolerant extremist inclusivism, which is already being bolstered by talk of “radical new Christian inclusion”. Conscience safeguards for theological conviction will be worthless; assurances of due respect will ring hollow; guarantees of sacramental provision have been rendered meaningless. For, as Professor Percy has identified, mutually exclusive integrities constitute no integrity at all. Pull the lever of “radical inclusion” too hard, the via media collapses, and schism will be unavoidable.