philip mawer martyn percy
Church of England

Mawer, Percy, and the See of Sheffield: what if Conservative politicians had supported Philip North?

Sir Philip Mawer’s report on the circumstances surrounding the nomination of Bishop Philip North to the See of Sheffield makes interesting reading, in particular what it means for the ‘mutual flourishing’ of both proponents of women priests and bishops, and those unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests. By exhorting the House of Bishops to commission a group “with balanced membership” to review “what would mutual flourishing look like – for me, for you, and for the Church”, the concept is not merely kicked into the long grass; it is abrogated.

“Mutuality… means that those of differing conviction will be committed to making it possible for each other to flourish.” Yet what mutual agreement on the definition of ‘mutual flourishing’ can come from a group with a “balanced membership”, which must, by definition, be half-composed of those for whom there can be no mutual flourishing between those who believe women may be validly sacramentally ordained and those who work and pray for the extinction of women priests and bishops in the Church of England? Where is the ‘mutuality’ between the belief in valid sacramental equality, and what Professor Martyn Percy termed the “sacralised sexism” of bishops like Philip North? Is there really a walkable via media to be found beyond the fluffy verbiage of perpetual fudge? If we are to “Ban conservative bishops until we have gender equality“, how exactly are those conservative bishops (and like-minded priests and laity) supposed to flourish?

Or is Professor Percy to be barred from membership of Mawer’s proposed mutuality review group on account of his anti-mutuality convictions?

Actually, the Mawer review is nowhere near as interesting as Percy’s response to it, which came via Christian Today. And no paragraph was as interesting as this one:

The report, however, also reveals how far the centre of gravity in the Church of England has drifted from the general public and contemporary culture. We are informed that ‘prominent voices question(ing) the nomination included those of Lord Blunkett and the MP for Sheffield Heeley, Ms Louise Haigh’ (para 66). This is a highly significant issue for public theology and an established Church – not least for its public witness and Christian credibility. The sentence above, however, is the only mention of this exceptional, probably unparalleled intervention by a former Labour Government Minister and Peer, and a serving Member of Parliament. The intervention merited some serious discussion, and not merely a fleeting mention. The report reveals a Church talking to itself, relatively deaf to wider culture.

Setting aside the fact that Louise Haigh MP represents the constituency of Sheffield Heeley, which is only one of the 12 parliamentary constituencies embraced by the Diocese of Sheffield (ie the other 11 MPs publicly expressed no view), how “highly significant” is it that left-liberal ‘progressive’ politicians express opposition to the appointment of a theologically conservative bishop? Martyn Percy is of the view that the intervention of Lord Blunkett and Louise Haigh was of profound importance for the Church of England’s public witness (and for Christian credibility). Andrew Lightbown goes further:

Politicians and civic leaders… have a right to comment on those appointments which will have a significant bearing on the life of the diocese. Bishops do after all sit in the legislature. on the benches of the House of Lord’s. Bishops also have the opportunity, through their very office, of shaping civic life and culture.

1 Timothy 3, 7 stresses that potential bishops ‘must be well thought of by outsiders.’  So, when assessing whether the diocese is content to accept or otherwise a ‘non ordaining’ bishop the views of civic leaders should carry significant (not necessarily decisive but significant) weight.

So if left-liberal ‘progressive’ politicians do not think particularly well of theologically conservative bishops, populist calls for such episcopal nominations to be rescinded (or not to be made at all) should carry “significant weight”?

What if two Conservative politicians had supported the nomination of Philip North to the See of Sheffield?

What if two Labour politicians had supported him?

What if Nigel Farage had supported him?

Which civic ‘outsiders’ merit having their views taken into consideration when it comes to the appointment of bishops (or the development of doctrine)? Are any political dispositions beyond the pale?

Politicians, wrote Bagehot, are “men of the world”. They are men (and now women) of business and self-interests. They do not bequeath to us coherent works of systematic theology, though Christian themes may be interwoven with their policies and rhetoric. But it cannot be ignored, in a democracy, that they each have their eyes not only upon their political objectives but also the popular press: their task simultaneously has to be to reassure sceptics and win converts, as well as to rouse the faithful.

Frankly, a left-liberal politician would support the nomination of a Muslim bishop if (s)he thought there were enough votes in it. This isn’t a flippant comment; it is simply an observation that jumping onto political bandwagons is what democratic politicians do. Theological integrity or spiritual reason are of little consequence in a dog-eat-dog age of ubiquitous religious illiteracy. How many politicians are aware of the purpose, meaning and significance of an established church?

The curious thing about Andrew Lightbown’s intervention is his erroneous application of 1 Timothy: it is a pastoral epistle. St Paul isn’t talking about whether a bishop’s theological beliefs are “well thought of by outsiders”; his concern is their character, maturity and integrity:

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (vv2-7).

The final clause is paramount, or is Andrew Lightbown saying that Philip North’s belief that women may not be validly sacramentally ordained is not only worthy of the reproach of non-believers, but is a snare of the devil?

Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

It is easy to appropriate the views of a Labour peer and a Labour MP to the socialist cause of equality, but it is a shallow theology and a shoddy ecclesiology. What happens to latitudinarianism? What does the Broad Church become if theological liberals align with political liberals to hinder, exasperate and expel all the theological conservatives?

But if we’re going to go there, what does Professor Percy make of the fact that 128 Conservative MPs (then the majority of the parliamentary party) voted against same-sex marriage? Should their view be considered “highly significant”, or should it be set aside because it isn’t conducive to equality in either church or state? When does public theology heed a partisan political view, and when should it ignore it? When should doctrine mutate to accommodate the diverse views of the people, and when should the church go on believing and witnessing against experience? When should the world’s condemnation of Christian discipleship be noted, and when should it not?

A man-centred theology of liberation and fashion which repudiates authority and snooping dogmatism is not the only model of public theology. A God-centred theology still has something to say to the modern world, to our national life, social life, civic life, family life and personal life. The Christian conscience may still judge the acts of the State, even when to do so is an offence to 90 per cent of its fellow citizens. The mission is not to be popular or to find favour, but to make a new kind of civilisation through reformation and renewal. Isn’t God above material things?