Sheffield Speaking Out—What Do We Want?

This blog is written by Revd Sue Hammersley, (Vicar of St Mark’s, Broomhill; Hallam Deanery in the Diocese of Sheffield.)

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“No episcopal appointment is without controversy and I realise that some of you will have misgivings about this appointment for theological reasons. I want to give a very strong reassurance that I deeply believe in the Church of England’s commitment both to mutual flourishing and to maintaining the highest possible degree of communion.

We live in an age where instant and strong opinions are all too easy to communicate to others and where consequently positions can quickly become entrenched. And yet it is through the slow business of building good relationships that trust develops and ministry becomes shared. I would therefore invite you to allow time for prayer and fellowship and much look forward to meeting you all as soon as possible.”

 (Bishop Philip North in his Letter to all clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield  January 31 2017)

 

Why are those of us who are concerned about the appointment of the next bishop of Sheffield finding it so difficult to speak out? Is it because we all agree? Or is it because there is such an imbalance of power that it took the Dean of Christchurch, Oxford to speak out? After all, who is listening? A world hungry for conflict is looking for a fight which we don’t want to fuel. The press, baying for blood, are looking for a sacrificial victim, but we don’t need another, one was enough for our liberation. We don’t want Bp Philip North to suffer the humiliation and hurt that many of us have been through, in different ways. We want to transform the church, to be seen to be a people of hope and possibility, not an institution caught up in its own internal struggles.

But, those of us who have taken the risk of speaking out, want the Church of England to hear that this particular nomination cuts to the heart of what we understand by “mutual flourishing”. Mutuality surely has to take account of the balance of power. When one person’s “flourishing” depends upon another person’s permission, this is not mutual. Perhaps Bishop Philip is feeling a little of this at the moment? It is perceived that he is the only one who has the “power” to change this situation but his obedience to the institution is as strong as ours and he knows what is at stake in Sheffield. We admire his resilience.

Why has there not been an immediate and public outcry from the parishes in Sheffield in response to the announcement of a traditionalist bishop serving a very mixed economy diocese? Surely this means that we are completely behind this nomination? Or maybe it is because the ONLY communication which has come directly to all clergy in the Sheffield Diocese, which was released at exactly the same time as the public event at the Cathedral, was from Bishop Philip himself. And he urged us to wait.

The only “open” meeting which Bishop Philip has so far arranged was with the women clergy a week after the announcement. What does this communicate? In that meeting the tip of the iceberg of personal pain was expressed, articulated into questions about how his “theological convictions” would impact on women in their ministry, a ministry which he “cannot receive”. We asked important and heartfelt questions because many of us, (not just women) have given so very much to respond to our vocation to serve the church. And it appeared that Bishop Philip left carrying not a little of that pain. But the promised notes, the notes we were “given permission” to share with our parishes and male colleagues, recorded nothing of our deepest questions about how we would be able to share the “cure of souls” with a bishop who was, at best, ambiguous about our holy orders; the question of what Bishop Philip understood about the nature of our priestly ministry within our parishes, the question of how our pastoral and sacramental needs would be provided for within the diocese. Silence.

Many of us see this imbalance of power at the heart of the five guiding principles but how can we speak out? These, after all, are the best the Church of England can offer us by way of an “Equal Opportunities” policy and they are the reason that women are able to be bishops at all. We are truly grateful. But, “mutuality, reciprocity and simplicity” only describe how the church will continue to make space for “the minority” who “are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests” they are silent when faced with the situation in Sheffield where many of the mainstream churches, men and women, lay and ordained will not be in full communion with their diocesan bishop. We are asked to wait and to trust. We do.

What do we want? We want to break the silence of misunderstandings.

We want to understand the process which led to Bishop Philip’s nomination, why the Vacancy in See Committee left the diocese wide open to receiving someone who would not ordain women. This was never checked out within the parishes. Was it deliberate or was it because we all assumed that there was a direction of travel within this diocese? We weren’t expecting this.

We want to understand the relationship between Bishop Philip and the many societies he represents, The Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda and Forward in Faith being the most relevant. How free is Bishop Philip to make up his own mind about women priests? How appropriate is it for a diocesan bishop, not a suffragan bishop, to be aligned with a group which denies the priestly orders of women?

We want a thorough review of the theology, efficacy and use of the five guiding principles which are currently being used to keep us silent.

We want to find a voice of dissent which is also a voice of love and compassion, of truth and justice and equality. We want to ask, what would Jesus do?

Revd Sue Hammersley, 26 February 2017

 

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