Disciples think—they don’t just follow

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Setting the record straight

It was inevitable, I suppose, that no sooner had Bishop Philip North announced that he was withdrawing from the See of Sheffield, the fingers of blame would be pointed at those who were said to have caused this to happen.

Archbishop Sentamu’s statement says: ‘there has been a strong reaction from a number of individuals in the Diocese of Sheffield and the Church of England, and this has ultimately led Bishop Philip to his decision … .’ This is an understatement of what has really happened in the Diocese and, by implication, unfairly lays the blame at the door of the people who have been more high profile in their response to the appointment.

In fact, from the moment of the announcement of the appointment there was widespread concern in the Diocese and the local area in many quarters. Obviously women clergy had their particular questions and fears, but so did many many lay people, both men and women, and male clergy too. It affected not only the Anglican Church but also the Methodist Sheffield Circuit, with whom the diocese had recently signed a new covenant for an Ecumenical Area. How were the ministerial orders of the Methodist church to be viewed by a bishop who would not ordain women? In my church, which is an Anglican Methodist partnership under the current oversight of a Methodist minister, we felt concerned that his role might not be regarded as valid, however much the Anglican members of his congregation are more than happy to have him as their priest. There were concerns too in the civic and wider public forums: would someone with views that the secular world found out-of-date and hard to accept be able to make the Church seem a relevant body?

As well as over 300 signing a pastoral letter for Bishop Philip, PCCs passed resolutions of concern. Bishop Peter, the Suffragan (and acting diocesan), and the senior staff of the Diocese were inundated with letters and emails. As Warden of Readers I took soundings and received over 50 emails and letters from both men and women. Some welcomed the appointment but most were worried; some were very cross indeed.

There were two broad areas which people felt needed to be resolved. One was the theologically technical problem of how a diocesan bishop can find himself unable to ordain women but at the same time say that he fully recognises their role as priests sharing his cure of souls? This calls for some mental and spiritual gymnastics which are beyond the understanding of many. The second is the problem of how that theology can be represented to people in the wider world without making the Church seem an outmoded and irrelevant institution. The Diocesan bishop of the established church has, inevitably, a civic role that goes beyond the church. Many people had questions about what effect this would have on the Church in the community, and how, as Christians, we would justify this position to other people.

These are not trivial issues: they are important questions that needed to be addressed. The hierarchy (and I use this word precisely) did not seem prepared to engage with them, to acknowledge the rightness of the issues being raised.

To describe the powerful reaction from across the Diocese as coming from ‘a number of individuals’ may be technically accurate but is misleading and belittles what really happened. And what really happened should have been anticipated. It is inconceivable that the hierarchy did not imagine that the women clergy of Sheffield, at the very least, would have questions and concerns that needed to be resolved. I am sadly coming to the conclusion that they may have thought that the laity would just do whatever they were told to do. Did nobody think this out beforehand? Did nobody realise that the appointment of a traditionalist bishop would raise all sorts of technical questions about how the much-quoted Five Principles would work in practice?

The hierarchy seem to have been unaware that though the settlement that allowed the vote for women bishops to pass had been debated and discussed in Synod, most of the laity were completely unaware of the niceties of the Five Principles. I have lost count of the number of conversations that I have had where I have had to explain what they say and what they were supposed to mean in practice.

Bishop Philip did arrange a meeting with the women clergy of the Diocese very shortly after the announcement of his appointment, but many came away feeling that it had not been satisfactory—that many of their questions had not been answered—and also that Bishop Philip had been misled in the briefing that he had been given about their likely response. Bishop Peter meanwhile went to extraordinary lengths to listen and hold the concerns and fears of people in the diocese with great pastoral care and sensitivity. Gradually there seemed to be a growing feeling of acceptance, if not of the theological position, but of Bishop Philip himself. Many people who were at first gravely concerned and upset at the news were prepared to let the principles of inclusion govern their behaviour. The hard Christian lesson that you have to include even people who would, if they had the opportunity, exclude you was being taken to heart.

But the pain was still there, and the official response of the Church of England at a national level seemed to be ‘suck it up’ – this is what has been decided. A good many of us in Sheffield began to feel that both we, and Bishop Philip were being used as an experiment to see how a Forward in Faith Diocesan Bishop would work. This might have been easier to accept if there had been proper thinking through of all the implications beforehand, but as it seemed that we were being expected to work through the practical theology without warning and without any understanding that there might be feelings involved.

There have been indications that some individuals have been very unpleasant in their communications with Bishop Philip. I do not condone this in the slightest. In the groups that I have been in contact with who have been key in leading and focusing some of the local protests: WATCH and SAME, there have not been personal attacks on Bishop Philip: people have recognised how hard this has been for him and have acknowledged his personal qualities and gifts.

In the last year political events have meant that people of liberal moderate tendencies have come to realise that it is not enough to simply hope that other people will perceive the reasonableness of your position and come round to your way of thinking. The arguments for moderate behaviour have to be advanced just as forcefully as those of extremists. People have begun to realise that they need to speak out and continue to press their point. This may be why there has been such a passionate and concerned response in the Diocese, which may have surprised the hierarchy. But I will not have us blamed for being prepared to speak our minds, ask the hard questions, and stand up for the principles of equality. The laity are not just fillers of pews and payers of collection. If the Church wants us to be disciples and partners in the mission of the Church, it must allow us to bring our brains and feelings to the enterprise and allow us to express them. Disciples think; they don’t just follow.

I have written this in an attempt to set the record straight about the reaction to the nomination of a traditionalist bishop. If the facts are distorted the Church loses the opportunity to learn from this and to think through the implications for any future nomination. No future nominee should be left so exposed and vulnerable, no diocese should find itself in such a painful crisis again. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the Sheffield experience, but this can only happen if we are honest with ourselves about what has happened.

Imogen Clout
17 March 2017