Church of England

Abstaining: Martyn Percy’s excellent (but flawed) Lenten reflection (on Sheffield)

Martyn Percy has written an excellent Lenten reflection on abstaining, in the context of the appointment of the next Bishop of Sheffield. We wait with bated breath to see if Philip North will proceed to consecration or stand down, as Professor Percy has suggested he should. The reflection is really, truly exceptional; the sort of allegorical applied theology which might make one proud to have once studied at his feet. It is profound, discerning and wise; almost prophetic. Rarely will you read such a parable of imaginative ingenuity and moral virtue.

It is worth reading and reflecting upon before you proceed further. And not only reflecting upon, but mediating prayerfully and faithfully; allowing Martyn Percy’s wisdom and insight to enlighten your mind and permeate your soul. Seriously, take the time. Here’s the space to do so ->


Brilliant, isn’t it? It weaves its symbolism into a lyrical theology of ecclesial love, acceptance and mutuality. It sings with moral consciousness, biblical integrity, and reasoned, powerful pastoral compassion.

But there is a flaw, and that flaw is contained in its very genesis:

Bishop Philip North is an abstainer. He is entitled to be so. He abstains from ordaining women. He abstains from recognising and affirming their full and equal sacramental ordination, (NB: but not lawful, although this is still against Principle One of the ‘Five Guiding Principles’). He abstains from clarifying his views on what happens when a woman priest celebrates the Eucharist at an altar in Pitsmoor or on the Manor Estate – or any other parish of the Diocese. He abstains from recognising the sacramental efficacy of men ordained by women bishops. He abstains from full participation in a Eucharist and Consecration, unless they are male-only affairs, and the sacramental ‘integrity’ of the event is guaranteed.

Does a paraplegic abstain from walking? Does a eunuch abstain from sexual intercourse? Does the blind man abstain from gazing at porn, or the deaf man from bathing his soul in Beethoven? Do men abstain from giving birth? Does God abstain from sinning? May the body and precious blood of Christ be bounded in a piece of mouldy bread and a cup of corked wine?

You cannot abstain from that which you cannot do. You cannot withhold that which cannot be. You cannot voluntarily refrain from that which cannot be performed. The ordination of women isn’t analogous to circumcision (or not), or eating meat offered to idols (or not), because such things exist. It is a question of ontology, and Philip North believes as a matter of conscience that to be a woman is incompatible with priesthood. He accepts the law of the land and the ecclesial reality, but the spiritual law of God is higher. You (/we) may demur, but this is what he believes. As the Archbishop of York has assured, Bishop Philip is dedicated to the encouragement and support of all women under his episcopal authority, but as a matter of conscience he believes that priesthood and maleness are as inseparable as Jesus and divine sonship.

And so Martyn Percy’s Lenten reflection breaks down: Philip North is not abstaining from ordaining women priests: he believes it is simply not possible to do so. You can quibble over whether temporal incapacity is analogous to spiritual stricture, but that would be to miss the point.

And there is a further flaw, or perhaps it isn’t so much a flaw as a theological impertinence. There is a demand (most recently articulated by ‘progressive’ Sheffield MP Louise Haigh) for Philip North to “clarify his views”; that is, to submit himself to some sort of ecclesial Court of Star Chamber, in which Martyn Percy might play the role of chief prosecutor to make a window into the Bishop-Elect’s soul to test his suitability for diocesan ministry.

Is this not a matter for Philip North’s own conscience? If he is in submission to the laws of the Church and the authority of Synod; and if he is committed by his own testimony to the mutual flourishing envisaged by the Five Guiding Principles, is it not for him in his conscience to work out the tensions, inconsistencies and incompatibilities between his ecclesiology, theology and praxis? Has not tolerance of that precise via media latitudinarianism permitted the Church of England to flourish for 500 years? Might not the intolerance of catholic orthodoxy precipitate schism?

Perhaps that is the intended or desired outcome: create a church in which there is a glass ceiling on the advancement of conservative-catholic clergy like Philip North, thereby privileging the rise of liberal-progressive clergy like…