Thoughts on Bishops who won’t Ordain Women

Philip NorthToday it was announced that Philip North, Vicar of Old St Pancras in London and a prominent member of Traditionalist Anglo-Catholic group Forward in Faith, is to be the new Bishop of Burnley. He is, therefore, someone who will not receive the sacramental ministry of women priests and bishops. Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of Glasgow, has objected to Philip’s appointment on social media today. Although Kelvin is someone I have a lot of regard for and agree on a lot of things with, I simply can’t agree with him here.

For what it’s worth, I am and always have been a supporter of the full inclusion of women in the Church’s threefold orders of ministry. It is one of the main reasons why I moved from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism 17 years ago. I rejoice that I think I can reasonably expect to see a woman as Archbishop of Canterbury well within my working lifetime. More than that, I don’t find remotely convincing either the ecumenical or the ontological arguments on which Traditionalist Anglo-Catholic opposition to women’s ordination rest. But I still don’t agree with Kelvin.

Quite apart from the personal regard in which I hold Philip, there are four significant reasons why. The first and last are specifically related to the current situation in the Church of England, and therefore may not apply so directly to Kelvin’s context. The middle two are, I think, universal.

  1. The imminent consecration of the first women bishops in England is a result of an agreement that convinced conservative Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals to not use the blocking minority they have on English General Synod. One might have reservations about parts of that agreement, but there were reservations on all sides and it was entered into in good faith by all sides. Gender equality is, indeed, an important Christian value (Gal 3:28) but so is honesty and so is keeping one’s word.
    Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics were promised the Church of England would remain a place in which they could flourish. Telling them that ‘flourishing’ means people who clearly have the moral, intellectual and pastoral fibre to be bishops will be barred from doing so is as credible as telling women and gays the same thing.

    Coming from Northern Ireland, I’m well aware that when some parties to an agreement try to walk away from the parts they find less palatable after the bits they wanted most have already been delivered, it creates extraordinary bitterness and bad blood. Christians shouldn’t even want to operate in that way (sadly many do, of course).

  1. Equality and diversity go hand-in-hand. In the Church, that isn’t just about gender, sexuality and ethnicity but also about issues like class (still an issue in the Church of England’s episcopate) and political opinion; and perhaps most of all, of theology. Too much of Christian history is a story of personal acrimony, schism and even violence over what seem, with the benefit of long hindsight, to be minor issues – filioque clause, anyone? It seems a strange way of following the Christ who called Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot to follow him, or Paul and James with their fundamentally different understandings of salvation.At its best, Anglicanism’s genius has been to accommodate an unparalleled range of theological opinion, often by accepting a degree of theological messiness.

    That capacity to tolerate theological messiness has come under threat in recent decades. It’s more difficult, for example, for a bishop to hold openly hold non-realist or non-personal understandings of God than for some time, and we have an episcopate which is markedly less diverse in its view of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage than the C of E as a whole. I don’t think that’s a good thing, and I don’t think adding another category to the list of difficult-to-hold opinions for Bishops is healthy for the C of E.

  1. Coupled with that, I believe it’s unhealthy for anyone to be live in a ghetto. I’ve been on the fringe of what became an angry, defensive and delusional Traditionalist ghetto for large chunks of my adult life. Locking people into ghettoes closes off the possibility of growth, development and change.Nor do I believe in locking myself into a liberal ghetto. Heaven forbid that God would only call people who happen to agree with Gerry Lynch on all issues of substance.

    Dividing people into sheep and goats is even more problematic on diversity issues in the Church than it is otherwise. Why should holding a Traditionalist view of women’s ministry be a defining criterion of episcopal unacceptability, rather than other diversity issues? To wit, some of the most prominent supporters of gender equality in the Church have been equally prominent opponents not only of LGB & T inclusion in the Church, but queer and trans equality in the civil sphere.

  2. That brings up my last, and least important, reason for disagreeing with Kelvin. The realpolitik of making progress on the treatment of people in same-sex relationships in the C of E, in the short-to-medium term, depends the moderate wing of Traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism. It’s likely we’ll start moving to formal votes on some important LGB issues in English General Synod in 2016-17, and unless the composition of General Synod changes radically next year (and it’s unlikely to) Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics might well hold a lot of the swing votes, especially where two-thirds majorities are required.

Those of us who think diversity is a cardinal virtue, both in the Church and in wider society, need to live it out even when it’s uncomfortable. For me, however, this isn’t uncomfortable territory. As I said at the start, I have a lot of regard for Philip and I think his appointment will be healthy for Lancashire, for the divided Catholic movement in the C of E, and for the Church as a whole: as Martin Warner’s has been at Chichester.

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13 Responses to Thoughts on Bishops who won’t Ordain Women

  1. Gerry I don’t think it is fair to say I objected to Philip North’s appointment.

    What I said was that the Church of England was making trouble for itself by continuing to make people bishops who object to women as bishops at the same time as starting to make choices about which women will be consecrated in due course. I continue to hold that view.

    That seems to me to be quite different to objecting to Philip North personally being made a bishop and I don’t feel comfortable with you suggesting that I did that. I don’t know Philip (other than hearing him once preach a sermon about toffees) but everyone I do know who does know him speaks highly of him.

    The ghetto I fear is the Church of England ghetto. Linda Woodhead’s recent research indicating that vast numbers of people in England think the Church of England to be anti-women and anti-gay. I’d say they had some cause to think so.

    The Church of England doesn’t exist to keep itself together, it exists for the evangelisation of England and the way these issues are being dealt with is becoming a serious stumbling block towards that happening.

    Speaking from outside the Church of England, one also has the fear that the settlements reached in England over these issues will extend the reach of the C of E (and here I don’t mean Anglican) heresy that one should be able to pick a bishop to suit one’s own theological proclivities. That is very much an Anglican Communion issue and has become a poisonous one at that.

  2. Very well written by your brilliant mind. It disheartens me to see somebody so young that is opposed to women’s consecrations, but to not include these views in the greater church would be dis-ingenuous, as abhorrent as they might be. I hope that they too remember this lesson of an act of inclusiveness and perhaps even learn from it.

  3. Gerry Lynch says:

    Oh, I have no doubt that having some bishops who are women and other bishops who don’t believe in women bishops will cause “trouble”. I also think “trouble” and messiness are healthy things for the Church. It’s a tidiness that comes from separating people into sheep and goats that worries me.

    I also think it’s inaccurate to see this as a continuation of the idea, which I also regard as unfortunate, that “one should be able to pick a bishop to suit one’s own theological proclivities”. Quite the reverse: Philip North (like Martin Warner) is operating in the Church’s mainstream structures and will have to work with many women priests serving under him, not to mention many male priests who are committed to gender equality in ministry, not to mention female colleagues in the College of Bishops.

    I didn’t suggest you objected to Philip North because of his personal characteristics as opposed to his theological views. What I understand you’re saying is that his views should, at least in an ideal world, make it impossible for him to be a bishop. It’s funny, I suspect a lot of people in the Church of Ireland would say that I had many fine personal characteristics but my homosexuality made it impossible for me to be considered even for commissioned lay ministry.

    Linda’s research is damning and hardly the first to note that (not exactly inaccurate) perceptions of homophobia and misogyny are real barriers to evangelism. Having women bishops might well help challenge that; inventing a new ‘glass ceiling’ for the minority who disagree won’t.

    I also think that two other issues, rarely researched, are much bigger barriers to evangelism: the belief that there is a conflict between Christian faith and science; and the understanding that faith is about subscribing to a series of abstract metaphysical notions and adhering to rulebook set out in the Bible. I’ve long thought that our failure to enter into those conversations meaningfully in the principal reason why we’ve aged so dramatically, which in turn is why we’ve been so far the curve in terms of inclusion on gender and sexuality.

    And one of the reasons why we haven’t entered into those conversations is because we’re all so wrapped up in our church ghetto where we assume that most people know the faith practised by the C of E is rather different than that practised by George W Bush; when it’s frighteningly not the case in the real world. So, we remain in agreement on an awful lot.

  4. trotter387 says:

    Its fine as you have Clergy who don’t believe the bible accounts, choose political intervention over promoting the clear teachings of the Christ. So Women Bishops isn’t going to hurt. I’m certain a great deal of time will be wasted on debate but everyone will cave in and accept.

    What would the Apostles and Christ himself think?

    How sad that this is about secular perception and not spiritual values and truth.

  5. BassoProfundo says:

    “He is, therefore, someone who will not receive the sacramental ministry of women priests and bishops.”

    That’s only a part of it. Is it deliberately understanding the problem?

    He also, presumably, believes that half of the priests being ordained into the Church of England nowadays are imposters, their orders are invalid and the ordinations are a charade. And that many of the priests in the diocese which he will serve are not genuine priests, and when they celebrate communion the service is invalid and the sacrament is ineffective and the recipients deluded or deceived. This, surely, cannot be compatible with being in a senior leadership role across the whole diocese.

    As for your four points, I don’t think they’re as substantial as they seem. Yes, it is regrettable that some “horse-trading” took place conceding ground to the obstructionists in the hope of getting agreement on women bishops. I don’t know in whose authority ground was given, nor how permanently, but I know that as a praying and paying member of the C of E, I wasn’t consulted. I guess commitments – however hasty and ill-advised – probably ought to be honoured for the time being, until circumstances change, though it seems harsh when it causes pain to others. But that’s hardly a substantive argument. Your point about realpolitik seems to be justifying an awkward pragmatic compromise, which is sometimes a good approach but again is hardly a substantial or principled argument. As for diversity, I’m all for it in general, but not when it involves inadvertently disrespecting women clergy and making them feel bad about themselves. No-one can be expected to tolerate absolutely anything, without limits, in the name of diversity. As for ghettos, “ Forward in faith” with their fear of contamination theology seems to me to set out to create a ghetto. The way out of the ghetto for people who think you can’t be a priest if you have the wrong genitals or hormones is education and exposure. It’s amazing how many opponents change when they actually meet a female priest.

    I think there are arguments on theological, pastoral, mission, moral and PR grounds for the C of E to stop trying to create a space for this particular subculture to “flourish” and instead to create opportunities for them to “grow”.

  6. Richard Ashby says:

    Couldyou elaborate why you think Martin Warner’s appointment to Chichester has been beneficial to the wider church? I am not sure that is the view in the Diocese where he is regarded with some suspicion and mystification still.

  7. You have the right to enforce your teachings as we do ours: women’s ordination is the law of your church. As happened in the Episcopal Church about 10-20 years ago, might you have more priests than congregations to serve, since few English people still go to church? “Does women’s ordination increase the attendance to services?” someone on Facebook asked. It didn’t in the Episcopal Church, which is in a demographic death spiral.

    My guess: in the C of E, “traditionalist Anglo-Catholic” now means “not Evangelical” and “merely doesn’t like women” as in a kind of gay. But vs. the Evos, the girls have the gays’ back, so the gays owe them one. Because all the would-be Catholics have gone to the ordinariate, I can imagine FiF merging with Affirming Catholicism/the SCP: both credally orthodox and sacramentally and liturgically high, a self-styled alterna-Catholicism, a non-Roman one, something many Anglicans have believed in. See me above on what I think is its lack of appeal to most English people, for whatever reason.

    “I’ve always supported the absolute equality of women and men in all orders of the Church’s ministry.” Reasons I don’t: 1) we can’t change the matter of a sacrament and 2) women aren’t attracted to male feminists; quite the opposite. (Right, nothing gets a woman’s desire and respect like a man who won’t stand up to her.)

    Finally, begging to be tolerated for the sake of Anglican comprehensiveness and inclusivity, whining “But you PROMISED!”, is antithetical to the Anglo-Catholicism I used to identify with, which saw itself as the truth and all other Anglicans as wrong, which frankly is what the winning faction regarding women bishops believes. No, the future of Anglican high churchmanship is “Affirming.” Any A-Cs thinking otherwise are kidding themselves.

  8. Mgr Andrew Burnham says:

    There is a good case, with modern understanding, for the ordination of women and the acceptance of committed gay relationships, sexually expressed. I think that there is also a good case for saying, with the tradition, that hierarchical ordination is intrinsically male and that the only relationship whose full sexual expression is to be solemnised is that of husband and wife. For a while I believed that these two cases – progressive and conservative – could be contained within the Church of England and I was duly a ‘flying bishop’ for ten years (my own views being conservative). I think some of the reaction to Philip North’s appointment shows that there are determined voices saying that the Church of England must be progressive in these matters. I have some sympathy with that view because my main reasons for leaving were (1) I was on an ecumenical journey (I thought with the whole of Anglicanism) towards the healing of the Reformation breach, a journey which, in my view had stalled and (2) I became convinced that, whatever views a Church has about Bible, Creed, Ministry, and Sacraments, it ought at least to agreed what constitutes these four things. Thus, a divided ministry – he’s ordained and he’s not (as well as he’s ordained and she’s not) is unworkable – and sacraments which may or may not be sacraments (that’s a eucharist and that’s not) – do not work. Once I became convinced that only some of us made a priority of the ecumenical quest, I set to work to pursue the ecumenical quest more urgently with any who would make common cause with me. However, I continue to love and respect the Church of England, and love and respect the men and women who serve and worship within it and through it. I think it would be good if it proved to be a Broad Church – with room for conservatives of papalist or Calvinist tendencies – but I fear that the middle ground will not allow that for very long. Philip North is a mission-minded priest. He is called to undertake mission, he thinks, where he has served and will serve in the C of E. For God’s sake give him a chance! He is out to convert pagans and not liberals…
    Andrew Burnham (formerly Bishop of Ebbsfleet)

  9. Richard Ashby says:

    What happened to my question about why Martin Warner’s appointment will be healthy for the Diocese of Chichester?

    • David Scott says:

      The lay people(I am one) in my outlying part of the diocese are delighted that at last we have a bishop who plainly cares about us and our role in evangelism

  10. kiwianglo says:

    Reblogged this on Kiwianglo's Blog and commented:
    Considering the fact that I, and people like me who profess to embrace true liberality in the Church; this blog-post comes as a refreshing breath of fresh air. Despite the problems of dealing with conservative clergy and bishops in the Church, I believe that, in the interests of the acceptance of diversity, we must all come to the realisation that this is what Christian liberality is really all about – acceptance of the fact that there are points of view, different from own own, that have an intrinsic right to be expressed in a Church that calls itself ‘catholic’. – Father Ron –

  11. Charles Read says:

    It depends on the nature of Philip’s disagreement with the ordination of women. The five principles on which the legislation was built are explicit that the Church of England does ordain women and so such women really are ordained. You cannot, it seems to me, be a bishop if you think they are not.

    You can , however, think we should not have done this or not at this point. I am not sure I know what Philip”s reasons for not accepting the ordination of women are. If they are the former, we are in trouble because he will not accept a sizable number of his clergy as truly clergy at all. If the latter, we are OK.

  12. paulsmusing says:

    He holds that 50% of Humanity are in some way deficient, this is bordering on blasphemy since we are all made in the image of God. That is unless women spoil the image of God.

    I worked under a bishop that was disinclined to ordained ministry of women, I saw so much hurt it was heart rending.

    As for your comments about LGBTI that will be resolved without inflicting sexist beliefs on people after all it’s a hollow victory to win for one group freedoms you lose or deny another group

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