A response to the letter from our Archbishops

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We welcome the Archbishops’ request to the Independent Reviewer to consider the situation that has occurred in the See of Sheffield and its implication for the CofE,  the 2014 legislation and the efficacy of the five guiding principles. We felt that we would like to respond to the questions that John Sentamu and Justin Welby have chosen to ask.

Here in our diocese, all have been asked to enter a time of prayer and reflection for healing and our questions are part of us seeking to participate in that mutual healing. We wonder what understanding there is, beyond the diocese of Sheffield, for those in our :
– who were pastorally concerned about the nomination of Philip North;
– who who were upset by people raising concerns.
Our question to the wider church including the Archbishops, is about the pastoral response, or lack thereof; this situation has fallen heavily on our senior staff. We welcome an independent review from beyond, we would welcome some further pastoral support from beyond too.

SAME’s efforts have sought to improve understanding and seek a better quality of conversation. We feel cautious and puzzled about this new phrase “‘Christianly’ disagreement” since we do not know what is implied or about whom.  It has left all those who wrote letters feeling as though they were part of the “individualised attack” whereas the correspondence we saw was balanced and well argued. This phrase has caused further stirrings on the ground which has been very unhelpful. We were also very surprised the Archbishops suggested that the legislation created “permanancy”, since the original phrase used was “without specifying a time limit” and this is different.

We are concerned, too, that the way the Archbishops have phrased certain things, may place additional stress on the senior staff of our Diocese, when it is they who have helped seek unity and historically have worked so thoroughly on enabling mutual understanding and reconciliation.

Now we will turn to the questions we have about the five things our Archbishops have asked of Sir Philip Mawer, the Independent Reviewer.

1. “What has been done in the church, including the Diocese of Sheffield, to inform and educate the clergy and laity about the settlement agreed in 2014?”
We wonder what has been exceptional about this diocese’s knowledge of the legislation? What we do know is there was some very deep learning about the declaration and principles during the working weeks following the nomination. Some of us became astounded at the use of MF as an equality policy, for both gender and theological diversity. We encountered the limitations of the Five Guiding Principles, as part of the legislation, when we were trying to resolve our difficulties. We noted that the principles are about Orders not Appointments.  We believe that it is more than education that is required but a review of the efficacy of the declaration and principles.

2. “The process leading to the nomination of Philip North to the See of Sheffield”
We have repeatedly heard, in Sheffield diocese, that the process for collating views on a new bishop was inconsistent in asking people specifically about whether Sheffield was the right context currently for a “traditionalist” or female bishop. We wonder how such conversational inconsistencies can be reviewed.

We long for the day when asking about a person’s gender has no relevance to their suitability for an appointment; we believe, however, that this question was discussed in establishing the Statement of Needs. What has been completely absent, both in this diocese and within the 5GP is clarity about the implications of nominating someone with an exclusivist theological stance regarding women’s ministry to very senior appointments.  The nomination to the See of Sheffield was not being challenged because of the person’s gender but because of the implications of his theological position upon more moderate parishes.

The sense that this diocese was following a particular “direction of travel” meant that this nomination was interpreted as a “backward step” by many.  Had there been a more robust process of communication and consultation within the diocese the outcome would have looked significantly different.

3. “The consistency of that nomination with the declaration”
The main issue which took this diocese by surprise was the significant difference between an appointment to a suffragan and a diocesan role.  Had the same nomination been to a suffragan post we think this diocese would have embraced it wholeheartedly.  The inconsistency has to do with the differing nature of the authority of suffragan and Diocesan posts.  We believe that the declarations and 5GPs need to be reviewed in terms of their internal consistency.

4. “The reactions to that nomination in the Church and beyond”
We have understood what happened following the announcement of the nomination in terms of a pastoral crisis. What we saw beyond the diocese, in blogosphere and social media, was very little comment of substance. We published seven opinion pieces, here. Elsewhere, there were the think pieces from the national director for communications and the Archbishop of York and comment in the Church Times. Our acting Diocesan made two statements.

We want to emphasize the breadth of concern shown by lay people and those holding civic and community roles. We think it is important for the Church of England to recognise that the concerns of those lay people and civic and community leaders who spoke out were legitimate, and accurately articulated what many local people thought about what this would mean for Sheffield as a city and for the diocese as a whole.

We are aware of a great deal of correspondence from individuals to Bishop Philip but we decided to construct one letter which all those with concerns could co-sign.  There were several requests for petitions and more public shows of protest but we felt this was more appropriate.  Although the letter was never sent, due to Bishop Philip’s retreat and withdrawal, the statistics from that exercise have been made available.  We cannot comment on letters which we didn’t see but none of the letters we saw could have been described as an “attack”.

5. “The response of the institutional church to the nomination and the reactions to it”
Our acting diocesan and other diocesan senior staff have sought to enable people to speak via correspondence with them, many phone calls and numerous local level meetings attended by senior staff. We applaud the long hours involved, especially for our acting Diocesan in wanting to listen to the different responses of people across the diocese in the church and beyond it and to try and encourage us all to be considerate of one another and to pray for those who hold opposing views.

We are concerned and bemused that we don’t seem to be getting the same kind of encouragement to be honest and engage with each other appropriately from the wider church. But rest assured that we’re trying to do it anyway.

What has become apparent through this time is that the implications of the nomination to the See of Sheffield affected the wider church community significantly. We have received a great deal of interest from people beyond this diocese who wanted to engage in the questions which were being raised.

Members of the SAME Editorial Group