Church of England

If Philip North can’t be Bishop of Sheffield, the Church of England ceases to be catholic

The Dean of Christ Church, Professor Martyn Percy, has issued an ultimatum circumspectly entitled ‘Questions of Ambiguity and Integrity‘. It’s quite long, but essentially it boils down to a choice: either the Rt Rev’d Philip North, currently Bishop of Burnley who opposes women priests and bishops, must renounce his membership of The Society, whose mission is to “promote and maintain catholic teaching and practice within the Church of England”; or he must withdraw himself from nomination to the See of Sheffield, which Professor Percy describes as a “go-ahead, vibrant, progressive city” (ie, no place for the “sacralised sexism” of bishops like Philip North). He is keen to empasise that he does not call for Bishop Philip to withdraw, but “Rather, I invite him to reflect on his position, and work through his theological convictions with honesty and sincerity; in other words, act with integrity” (the inference being that for him to be consecrated Bishop of Sheffield, where apparently a third of clergy are women, would be dishonest, insincere, and devoid of integrity).

The logic is impeccable: Philip North does not believe that women, or men ordained by women bishops, are sacramentally valid priests, so how can he possibly affirm their vocations, ministries and identities? What credible words of affirmation can he give to women priests under his episcopal authority when they know, deep down, that he does not believe they actually exist; that their holy orders are absolutely null and utterly void? And even if he acknowledges their existence as church leaders and ministers of the Word, Martyn Percy probes deeper:

But the crucial question is, what does Bishop Philip think is happening at the altar, when a woman is presiding at the Eucharist. I don’t know. And so far, Bishop Philip has tended to be ambiguous in his statements on this matter. But this issue cannot now be fudged. Any answer that sidestepped the question as to whether such a sacramental offering is valid or efficacious would be pastorally and personally undermining of women clergy. And to repeat, the position of The Society is that ‘we can’t receive [this] ministry’.

There is no room here for a formulaic Anglican fudge: there is simply no place for sexism in the Church of England, for, as Professor Percy states, “tolerating intolerance is not virtuous practice”. It is a missional imperative: “We can’t speak with authenticity publicly, when we still sanction & sacralise sexism: CofE is just made to look like an odd reactionary sect,” he tweets. So he has little time for the murky “mutual flourishing” of the Five Guiding Principles by which diverse and mutually-exclusive integrities are sustained, respected and fostered. Such polarities, for him, permit no true flourishing precisely because they are devoid of integrity. Many will have sympathy with his reasoning; indeed, he re-fabricates the precise stick of ecclesial-theological logic with which the extremes have traditionally bludgeoned the via media, going all the way back to 1534.

And yet in his impeccable logic is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Anglicanism: it is almost as if the great Professor Martyn Percy is trying to play pope, which would be a very un-Anglican thing indeed.

Critics within and without the Church of England have been highlighting its internal contradictions and prophesying its demise since it was established. It was once referred to as being “crucified between two thieves” – the respective fanaticism and superstition of the Puritans and the Papists. There is a modern parallel with a church now suspended between the decline in institutional religion and the burgeoning of generalised ‘spirituality’; between the secularisation of society and the plurality of faith communities. The postmodern context is marked by diversity, fragmentation and all that is transitory: beliefs and practices are culturally relative, and Anglicanism, on one reading, has ceased to be supra-cultural or catholic.

Theological leadership is raised up in due season. Bishop John Jewel with his Defensio Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae was the first to navigate safe passage for the Anglican Settlement after its fragile birth under the young Elizabeth I. A generation later Richard Hooker, fearing for the future of the Church of England at the hands of radical reformers within, gave us Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, helping to secure the church’s future. And in the 19th century, Samuel Coleridge “made trial of his age” (as Newman put it) and set the Church of England on a fresh course of intellectual and imaginative renewal at a time when the likes of Thomas Arnold were proclaiming exactly the sort of deficiencies now highlighted by Martyn Percy.

But the Reformed English Church persists with its via media tensions because there is no better expression of English identity: it is the quintessential Ecclesia Anglorum. If it is still crucified between two thieves – the modern puritans of absolute gender-sexuality equality, and the quasi-papists of catholic continuity – it is because it has tasted the unmerited transformational grace of God in Jesus Christ, and maintains continuity with the Church of the Middle Ages and the Fathers. The Church of England is reformed and reforming, but it is also catholic. In this it is moderate and reasonable; rigorous yet pastoral. And these are held in perpetual tension, in the brokenness of the cross, where Bishop Philip North doubtless kneels daily. And if there is no space for him at a diocesan level, the Church of England sacrifices its catholicity on the altar of ever-reforming modernity.

In Anglican polity there are undoubted imbalances, frequent injustices, irregularities or muddled integrities. These are the imperfections and limitations of our fallenness. But the Ecclesia Angliae has endured theological onslaughts and political threats since its inception – from popes, puritans, secularists, scientists, atheists and ecumenists, to name but a few. It can surely survive a little feminist intolerance of latitudinarianism from an Oxford academic.