Today 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.